In every society, one can hear the din of wolves, baying from the outskirts. On the first Wednesday of January, we witnessed the wolves clamber into the U.S. Capitol, scale the walls of Congress, and claw open the windows to press inside. They had wrapped themselves in banners bearing the name of the man to whom they swore allegiance. Some were kitted out in paramilitary gear. A few were even draped in furs.
The stampede of the Capitol has renewed our attention on the first (and, perhaps, the only permanent) question of politics. Is our default condition one of harmony and good will, or is it one of chaos and envy?
Thomas Hobbes, the first great modern political thinker, famously asserted that man is a wolf to man. The wolves baying at the gates are a constant din beneath the bustle of society. A functioning political order is, therefore, a marvel to behold—it manages to keep back the wolves in our midst, if only temporarily. Since political order is always born out of chaos, it is constantly under threat of collapsing back into disorder.
In the history of political thought, the great counterpoint to Hobbes’s realism has been the optimism of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who in the century after Hobbes held the view that humans are by nature good to one another and only become wolves when they are corrupted by political society. Lift off the yoke of irrational government, replace it with a statecraft of enlightened reason, and humans will naturally harmonize with one another.
The question of chaos or harmony as our default state is important because it provides us with two ways of understanding disorder whenever it unfurls around us. Should we be astonished at the seditious storming of the Capitol building?
If you think humans are by nature good, then you will seek to explain what could make such malevolence possible. You will grasp for all those explanations that have been floated for the past four years. Some of those explanations help make some sense of the situation. Yet, nobody truly thinks they have a handle on this mob—not intellectually, and certainly not practically.
If, on the other hand, you accept that there is a constant threat of chaos within every society, then you will not be astonished when the mobbing masses throng through the streets (though in the present case you might be astonished at how easily they seemed to accomplish their invasion in the face of an armed police force that seemed utterly overwhelmed). What impresses realists about politics, and what they hold to as, perhaps, the only sacred thing made on this earth, will be the fact that there simply ever is such a thing as functional political order. Realists do not think that chaos needs to be explained. They simply assume that disorder is always there, waiting to invade the fragile orders that we manage to make. Realists will, therefore, want to explain, so as to better hold fast to, those political orders that chase chaos beyond the gates.
There is a second basic question of politics that realists can ask, but which is not an option for optimists. How do we construct political order out of the antisocial chaos that is given us? Hobbes thought chaos could only be beaten back by a strong sovereign—an authoritarian who bends everyone to obedience. Hobbes was a pessimistic realist; his pessimism produced his authoritarianism. But among the generation immediately following Hobbes there toiled the greatest of the early modern political thinkers. John Locke was the first to work out in detail the courageous idea that we could achieve political order by consent, rather than coercion. With Locke’s hopeful realism, the great modern experiment in self-government was born.
Anyone who has read him knows that Locke was deeply flawed by today’s standards. And it can be no mere accident that the stains of his thought continue to run rampant in self-governed states today. These include the stains of sexism, classism, and racism. Yet Locke’s deeply stained thought still managed to give voice to a few crucial ideas that could, and would, be used by later generations to try to press back against the racist, sexist, and classist wolves who are a constant threat in every modern political order.
The idea of self-government, or rule by consent, can be turned against injustice to be used in the pursuit of political equality and legal anti-discrimination. Contemporary liberal activists, like Stacey Abrams, show that we have by no means secured equal voting rights for all. But she, more than anyone else today, understands that an equal right to vote and, thereby, to participate in the political process through consent rather than force is a project worth pursuing. That is to mobilize Lockean ideals against the Lockean wolf. It is to be a hopeful realist.
Such hope is now in short supply for many citizens of liberal democracies. In the United States, the stampeding of the Capitol was heartbreaking to witness. Some are so disgusted by the cruelty and inequality it represents that they are turning their backs on the country. Many others turned their backs long ago, citing a long litany of our national abuses.
Those who give up faith in their country must trade their loyalty in for something else. Disgust with the present can be cause for its abandonment only among those who are able to take comfort in a long-run optimism. They find solace in the unbending idea that a very different political form of organization can be counted on to produce a much fuller harmony among humans. The revolution will come at some unspecifiable time, so the faith goes, and then we will marvel at the vapors of dissipated chaos that will have just boiled off.
But if you give up on your country, here and now, what do you have left, in the here-and-now? At best, you have a private optimism, which many of your fellow citizens simply cannot afford to bet on. At worst, you have an argument that convinces others to walk away from the very gates that have for so long held back some, even if only some, of the churning chaos.
Hopeful realists hold fast to their political hope, but without the idealism involved in giving up on the country. They find in the idea of self-government by consent something to work for and, sometimes, even to love. But being realists, they also always remain fearful of how brutal the country can be, and too often is. In short, hopeful realists try to hold in a single vision the pain and the love that are always there in politics.
There is no writer who more poignantly expresses America’s long twain of suffering and love than James Baldwin: “I love America more than any other country in the world and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually.”[i] In essays like “The Fire Next Time” and novels like Another Country, Baldwin shows that every white American needs to learn what almost every non-white American already knows: the wolves are in our midst and are a real part of who we are. When Baldwin insists that white Americans need to learn this lesson, he is not cheering cappuccino liberals toward a glib acknowledgment of plain facts about the sins of our history. Rather, he is insisting that you seek these sins out in your own heart and suffer in your soul the violence that has been perpetrated, precisely because some of it was perpetrated in your name (just consider your family name). Only once you have found the country’s stains within yourself can you finally begin to both love your country and relentlessly criticize it out of that love.
The day after the siege of the Capitol, Michelle Obama reiterated the pain and the love at the heart of Baldwin’s vision of politics. “The work of putting America back together” will be “an uncomfortable, sometimes painful process,” she said. “But if we enter into it with an honest and unwavering love of our country, then maybe we can finally start to heal.”[ii]
Realists about politics frankly acknowledge the hard truth that brutality is always in the wings. But hopeful realists go on to affirm that we have in fact made much to help keep some of that default chaos at bay. And that deserves our political loyalty, if anything does.
To love your country, you do not need to pretend that it is perfect. You do not need to disavow the white, masculine, and thuggish violence in which your history is entrenched. But neither do you need your nation to pass a moral purity test to commit yourself to love of country. Your love can be the courage of a hope that lies at the heart of the majestic idea of an ever-more-equal society from which the suffering of chaos is ever-receding. This will be a painful and even at times tragic love. Because it can never be fully realized. But would you really refuse to love only for the fear of heartbreak?
[i] James Baldwin, Notes of a Native Son (Boston: Beacon Press, 1984), p. 9.
[ii] Michelle Obama, Twitter statement, Jan. 7, 2021, Part 2 of 2, at https://twitter.com/MichelleObama/status/1347284257551638529?s=20.