Political Note:
Promise and Forgive
14 June 2019

Most discussion of the nature of political action concerns itself with the preliminaries only: what it takes to create a launch-pad, as it were, for decisions about new programs. The principal question is usually this: who gets to sit down at the bargaining table?  Who gets to decide? But what happens after the launch is generally elided. The consequences of political failure are deemed to be confined to the voting booth, involving nothing more onerous than loss of office. In this view, political action is itself not thought to be very important, or no more important than the whimsicality of “you win some, you lose some.” Indeed, it is presumed that successful political preparation will ferret out and exclude the probable causes of actual disaster. By this reading, an effective political system — something blatantly lacking in France’s Second Empire — would have precluded Napoleon III’s effectively suicidal declaration of war against Prussia in 1870. The American political system, with its checks and balances, notoriously constrains the freedom of its political actors — to a degree, perhaps, that simply stunts political imagination. 

For a sense of truly grown-up, dangerous political activity, Hannah Arendt is, predictably, a reliable source. In The Human Condition, she boils political action down to two deadly-serious kinds of action. The first is the ability to set off something altogether new, with unpredictable consequences. (Her emphasis is not on the novelty but on the unpredictability.) Implicit in this beginning is a promise of success. The second kind of action is forgiveness for any failure, owing to unforeseen consequences, to keep that promise. (In pre-political environments, failure brings attainder and execution.)

Without being forgiven, released from the consequences of what we have done, our capacity to act would, as it were, be confined to one single deed from which we could never recover; we would remain the victims of its consequences forever, not unlike the sorcerer’s apprentice who lacked the magic formula to break the spell. Without being bound to the fulfilment of promises, we would never be able to keep our identities; we would be condemned to wander helplessly and without direction in the darkness of each man’s lonely heart, caught in its contradictions and equivocalities through the presence of others, who confirm the identity between the one who promises and the one who fulfils, can dispel. Both faculties, therefore, depend on plurality, on the presence and acting of others, for no one can forgive himself and no one can feel bound by a promise made only to himself; forgiving and promising enacted in solitude or isolation remain without reality and can signify no more than a role played before one’s self. (237)

To unpack this concise paragraph, I turn to the political tragedy of Lyndon Baines Johnson. Brought to the pinnacle of executive authority by what was widely (but not universally) considered a national catastrophe, Johnson embarked on his sponsorship of a domestic reform program, the Great Society. Tripped up, however, by a settler’s sense of masculinity, Johnson allowed himself to be misled into commitment to the Vietnam misadventure, which not only distracted him from his civil-rights projects but exhausted the funds needed to realise them. By 1968, he knew that he had failed on two fronts. He could not bring himself to ask forgiveness — and perhaps Americans at the time were not equal to the challenge of responding to such a request more substantively than by jeering at the man who made it; in which case Johnson’s tragedy is the nation’s. Johnson did the only honorable thing prescribed by his Texan ethos: he resigned. In essence, unfortunately, this was a private act, “no more than a role played before one’s self,” and the jeering, far from being prevented, grew all the louder and longer. Johnson’s causes were discredited, and the nation fell into the tender mercies, still more terrible than anything else that has ever happened in the White House, of Richard Nixon.

What makes political action so difficult — too difficult, I believe, for people who have not at some level actually exercised the skill — is being courageous enough both to hold leaders to account and to forgive them (not without penance!) on that account.  

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