Comment: Finding thankfulness in a return to ‘public happiness’

For the most part, the recent election showed signs public participation in politics might be on the rebound.

By Jonathan Bernstein / Bloomberg Opinion

This year, I am tentatively thankful for the possibility that politics might be fun again.

The U.S. isn’t yet out of the woods. There remain serious threats to the republic. But the defeat of anti-democracy candidates in key elections, especially in swing states, was a major victory for the rule of law and constitutional government. This will be even more true if Republicans view the 2022 midterms as an example of what happens when a party rejects democracy. If that message sinks in, politics in the U.S. might become a lot less fraught.

Politics is always a serious business. Sometimes terrifyingly so; just ask protesters in Iran, troops fighting in Ukraine or targets of bigotry in the United States. Even when lives aren’t at stake, all sorts of important consequences flow from politics, from the way our neighborhoods develop to the availability of health care to the policies shaping the economy to the possibility of a secure retirement.

But politics isn’t just about who gets what. It also can be entertaining, and occasionally, profound.

I’ll start with entertaining. There are some half a million elected officials in the U.S. who run for office over the course of a full election cycle. With so many people participating in the political system, some of them are bound to be goofballs or crackpots.

Politics and politicians have always been a source of comic relief or charming diversion to the public, including to those of us whose jobs involve paying close attention to the consequences of political actions.

On Thanksgiving I’ve often expressed gratitude for that relief, whether we’re smiling with them or laughing at them. For Bernie Sanders and his mittens at President Joe Biden’s inauguration. For Sen. Ted Cruz when he fled to Cancun during a Texas power crisis.

But odd behavior is a lot less entertaining when it has real and damaging consequences for the country. It might be amusing if, say, an obscure state legislator had claimed that she lost an election because a dead foreign dictator had rigged the voting machines. When the same claim is made by an attorney representing the U.S. president, it isn’t very funny at all.

I haven’t been up for celebrating the amusing side of politics in the last few years, when too many political actors sought to undermine our democracy, and I’m not quite ready to do so this year.

But I will never shy away from celebrating what political philosopher Hannah Arendt called “public happiness.” Citing the wisdom of the nation’s founders, Arendt believed that we have a propensity for a kind of enjoyment found in participation in collective self-government. People get involved in politics for all sorts of reasons, including for private benefit. But many find that working with others for public purpose (even if the ultimate goal is private gain) can lead to happiness found nowhere else.

Indeed, one can read the Declaration of Independence’s famous invocation of the right to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” as the right to seek personal benefits from public policy, or as the right to experience a positive feeling that comes with pursuing a common good for society.

An inclusive, participatory republic is important not just because it might offer a fair way of determining who gets what, but also because everyone deserves a chance to experience public happiness. Autocracy is evil not only because it leads to arbitrary and unfair distribution of public benefits, but also because it reserves public happiness only for the autocrat.

So Happy Thanksgiving everyone. And here’s hoping that the joys of politics, silly and profound, can continue to be spread to all who want them.

Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering politics and policy. A former professor of political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University, he wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.

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