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The declining role of philosophy in politics

July 30, 2011

The political sphere today is based on a foundation of ever-shifting sand. Politicians from the whole range of the political spectrum focus most of their attention on what they say, they see the instances where one verbal slip, one misplaced phrase could spell the end of their political career. With the all-encompassing presence of traditional and social media, what politicians say is becoming more important. In some ways it has superseded the actions of politicians, if someone gives a persuasive and convincing speech that is pleasing to the ears, and people quickly dismiss the need to look at voting records and the like.

Perhaps in response to this trend, politicians are placing greater emphasis on the level deeper than words, their actions, what they do, what bills and policies they support ect. This is certainly a step in the right direction, as this focus on concrete actions and policies furthers the debate past the surface level of partisan propaganda. Through various circumstances, and often in cases where the stakes are very high like the debt ceiling deal,  we are able to delve still one layer deeper. In these instances our political leaders give us glimpses into their political ideology, going from their actions and what they do, to what they believe. This shift is an even further improvement, because examining political discourse through this lens allows people to see the underlying reasoning behind the actions that politicians take. In the same instant it makes it easier for people to understand the thinking of those whose political leanings are completely opposite their own, and it enables people to question and examine the beliefs they hold that underly the actions and policies they support.

This progression from words and lip service to the substance of what politicians believe is beneficial, and vastly improves the political discourse. There is a further layer though, one that is rarely, if ever touched on. It is what guides all the rest, even if it is barely mentioned and better understanding of it would lead to better outcomes. Unfortunately, it also requires constant examination and reevaluation if it is to provide the full extent of its benefits.

It is philosophy.

It is often forgotten in the debates and party lines, in the rush to define what they believe or point to specific accomplishments. Politicians, and everyone else as well, lose sight of the underlying framework that drives the rest of their beliefs. They have more and more difficulty the more layers the discussion penetrates. Stump speeches flow trippingly of the tongue, specific policies come a little slower, but readily enough, political ideology comes evenmore haltingly, and is often marred by partisan considerations and scare tactics. After this stage, there appears to be a disconnect in the channels of communication between political leaders and the American people. Rarely, if ever, do we hear them explain why it is they hold their political beliefs, what is that drives their political ideology. Without an understanding of this philosophy, a constant and rigorous reexamination of it, we are but pieces of driftwood in an ever-changing current, swayed by circumstance and public opinion of the day, with no guiding principles, no framework to guide us.

In his Meditations, Marcus Aurelius touched on the uncertainty and bleakness a life without philosophy could have:

The body and its parts are a river, the soul a dream and mist, life is warfare and a journey far from home, lasting reputation is oblivion. Then what can guide us?

Only philosophy

 When the stakes get high enough, perhaps we will all dig a little deeper, we might all be surprised at the results.


From → Philosophy, Politics

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