The mean-spirited attacks and immature tone of the 2016 Presidential campaign signals the poor quality of American political discourse. It also reflects the downward trajectory of the aesthetic dimensions of US political rhetoric. To be concerned about the element of beauty in democratic discourse is not to be obsessed with peripheral components of our collective political heritage; rather, it is to be interested in a necessary component of visionary leadership and rich civic life. For, the articulation of a compelling political vision relies, in part, on taking seriously “the beautiful”: a form of excellence which is pleasing to the senses in a way that inspires awe.
Due to its distinct capacity to elevate the soul and persuade the mind, “the beautiful” has played an important role in American political-speak. This is due to the fact that a robust democracy relies on an inspired citizenry to establish a dynamic civil society. At its best, vigorous civic life promotes the idea that everyone matters and incubates collective energy towards the greater good. Our most persuasive Presidents--Kennedy, Lincoln, Roosevelt, and Reagan, among others--paid close attention to the aesthetic elements of their public utterances. They recognized the inspirational value of political oratory as a means to nurture and develop democratic consciousness. The grand principles of liberty and justice and the lofty grammar of progress that they emphasized are neither political reality nor public illusion. Rather, they are the rhetorical cornerstones of the common American faith that express a political aesthetic, a distinct form of beauty.
The grand principles of liberty and justice and the lofty grammar of progress that they emphasized are neither political reality nor public illusion. Rather, they are the rhetorical cornerstones of the common American faith that express a political aesthetic, a distinct form of beauty.
The current major party candidates for President may make an occasional, muted reference to the idea of a collective American fate or a feeble allusion to the best of our national ideals, yet they largely disregard the aesthetic dimensions of political discourse that inspire awe and reverence. This inattention, combined with the distinctive venom and vitriol that mark this race, has deleterious effects: not only does it further divide Americans, but it separates us in new ways. Without the high-minded principles and virtuous narratives that elegantly reveal that this is common in our diverse heritage, our collective democratic vision falters and our fears build.
America has always been a divided nation. Paradoxically, our pledge of allegiance to a unified nation that is “indivisible, with liberty and justice for all” acknowledges this, as it is an aspirational claim not a descriptive one. Interestingly, these kind of collective oratorical rituals--like the singing of our National Anthem--play an important role: they resonate at the level of sentiment and remind us of our common fate. It is worthy to note that forms of beauty may be found in elegant resistance to these rituals, but not in their disregard. For, thoughtful dissonance and mindful dissension are requisite components of a well-developed aesthetic of democracy. The most effective (and therefore beautiful) democracy requires that citizens mobilize frequently, neither from rage nor hate, but to affirm their vision of how best to proceed in shaping our collective destiny.
Many voters are anxious. Maybe the question we should ask is how are we to stake a claim for beauty at the voting booths on Tuesday? The answer is that we should remind ourselves that each and every one of us is, at our best, a mediator of beauty. Our job then is to perform the task of intermediary: to connect the best principles of our flawed democratic heritage to our severed nation currently ridden with strife and bitterness.
This act requires us to not only be present at the polls, but to be in harmony with our best vision of the brightest future for our fledgling democracy regardless of the present circumstances. We should not yet grow wary of our democratic inheritance. Thus, we must recognize that “the beautiful” is to be found and expressed in our political choices not just those of the candidates. We must bring aesthetic order to the chaos of this political season by articulating a compelling political vision that reflects an excellence that is pleasing to our senses in a way that inspires awe. Beauty should dictate our actions at the polls.
Andre C. Willis is a philosopher of religion and faculty fellow at the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs at Brown University.