What America can learn from Hannah Arendt


When Donald Trump won election in 2016, he was labelled the cause of America’s democratic decline. He is not. Instead, Mr Trump is the symptom of a decade’s long erosion of trust that paved the way for his victory. Perhaps one reason for this staggering hollowing out of American politics in recent years may be partisanship, levels of which have always been high thanks to a two-party domination of the political system. Recently, however, it has done more than make the political atmosphere febrile, it has placed a chokehold on government.

Partisanship… has placed a chokehold on government.

Looking back in time may offer some answers about how to address this issue.

Hannah Arendt, one of the foremost political philosophers of the twentieth century, offers pertinent lessons for American democracy. Born into a secular Jewish family in Hanover, 1906, Arendt spent the first part of her life watching Germany’s slide into totalitarianism. She wrote anti-Nazi propaganda and challenged anti-Semitism, before being arrested by the Gestapo for sedition. Later escaping to America, where she spent the rest of her life, Arendt became a seminal thinker and academic whose insights may help salvage what’s left of American democracy today. 

While Arendt is best known for working on the nature of evil, her thoughts on political life lead a way out from the miasma America finds itself in. Arendt’s philosophy offers a solution: active civic engagement and collective political deliberation. This sounds somewhat hopeful at best – silly at worst. Expecting Americans to drop their differences and start working together is the sort of thinking done by people who have no experience of the viciousness of American politics.

Arendt’s philosophy offers a solution: active civic engagement and collective political deliberation.

But, look deeper into Arendt’s conception of politics and it is not so naïve. Her prescription for partisanship reveals what ails American democracy: namely, the sort of mass disenfranchisement that prohibits proper political participation, the type that has matured in places like Europe.

There are barriers to participation on almost every level of politics. At the very bottom, the supreme court has struck down voting protections in the landmark case Shelby County vs. Holder, allowing state governments to brazenly suppress their own voters. At the top, the impact of the average voter is nullified by the unlimited private donations that flow to political campaigns.

Even going to the polls may not matter – extensive gerrymandering, the redrawing of electoral maps to benefit one party, has meant that some 90% of incumbents in Congress are re-elected. As a result, few races are competitive and voters ask what is the point of voting if the outcome is already sorted?

Arendt lauds the American Revolution for carving out a space for collective political deliberation, yet nowadays this has been lost. Her prescription is clear: carve out a space where active civic engagement and collective political deliberation can take place. This is not a call to create a shiny new building where politicos can meet or to suggest that direct democracy is the way forward, instead it has more subtle implications for policy makers.

Prescribing active participation implies access to a semi-decent education for everyone.

Prescribing active participation implies access to a semi-decent education for everyone, implies that outlets like Fox News and Breitbart, who have little purpose other than to stoke partisan fires, be curbed. Encouraging ordinary people to talk to each other without attacking their integrity would also perhaps be the beginning of a return to normalcy, maybe even reviving the lost American traditions of bipartisanship and compromise.  

At a time when hope is difficult to find, Arendt’s solution may be just the hopeful thinking America needs.

Image: Ryohei Noda via Creative Commons

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