Niebuhr Last Post
This link has an interesting article in how many liberal journalists and commentators have been dismayed at the emotional urgency and language of liberal bloggers and groups such as moveon.org
In one of the more unsettling passages of Moral Man Immoral Society, Niebuhr argues that the emotional, the non rational, the dramatic over simplification, and potent symbols are needed for people to become involved in any struggle. It's something that liberals had lost in the last few decades and in some measure are regaining.
This becomes a source of worry for a number of commentators. And Niebuhr recognizes in the last chapter of that book the limits of that mode. But it has also provided a way for people to be involved in the political process. There is a way in which the rational, as practiced by some, can be a means to prevent democratic participation.
We're left with Walter Lippman's vision of a society where experts are running the show, but not one of a democracy that solicits vigorous participation by a broad range of people. In that, Niebuhr's insight strikes me as important for democratic theory, even though it seems missing from today's discourse.
But cautionary Niebuhr seem relevant as ever. When the left had no power under Bush there was a kind of despair that corresponded with arrogance that the right experienced. Both were rooted in the belief that achieving the mechanisms of power could result in the vision they hoped for and the lack of power was the ultimate thwarting of it.
There was no sense of the limitations, either of the vision or the ability to enact it, that mark such things. The failure of the Iraq war seems to be a testimony to this. There was also no sense that there are forces or even inertias, perhaps even the divine, that are larger than the wills and desires of individuals.
But how does one hold together the emotional, the non rational, and the energetic drive that compels people into social action and the limitations and sober assessment that Niebuhr presents to us as a caution against any social project? I think that's the tension we're left with in his work.