The nobility of imperfection: toiling in flawed human institutions

I read your post (of course)…

You mostly talk about Sanders and Clinton as individuals subject to public pressure by their supporters. But underneath that, I think we’re really talking about institutions. And one fraught institution in particular: the Democratic Party.

Heaven knows, the Democratic Party is easy to trash. But, if it sucks… compared to what? What’s a party for? What should, could it be doing? Why doesn’t it do better?** These are complex and subtle questions that deserve far deeper thought than they usually get. For instance: if the Democratic Party is compromised by money and corporate power, why? If lots of people vote in ways that seem (to us) to be against their own economic interests, why? For that matter, when the Democratic Party, or the Obama administration, does something importantly right, how on earth did that happen?

IMO, anyone who thinks these questions have obvious, simple, or conspiratorial answers isn’t thinking hard enough (or very hard at all).

Across the pond, the UK will vote Thursday on whether to “Remain” in, or “Leave” the European Union. As you probably know, “Brexit” has been a vicious campaign. The UKIP’s Nigel Farage (their Trump, roughly speaking) is running a Trumpian “make England great again” anti-immigrant campaign of fear. Maybe you’ve seen his poster:

breaking point

The other day, a local far-right white supremacist (who’d been in contact with America’s neo-Nazis) murdered a young Labour member of Parliament. As he fired his shots, he shouted: “Britain First.”

I mention this because I wanted to share something J.K. Rowling just wrote about the Brexit debate:

No, I don’t think the EU’s perfect. Which human union couldn’t use improvement? From friendships, marriages, families and workplaces, all the way up to political parties, governments and cultural economic unions, there will be flaws and disagreements. Because we’re human. Because we’re imperfect. So why bother building these ambitious alliances and communities? Because they protect and empower us, because they enable bigger and better achievements than we can manage alone. We should be proud of our enduring desire to join together, seeking better, safer, fairer lives, for ourselves and for millions of others.

I think that says it. There’s a deep nobility in coming together as imperfect people in imperfect institutions, and trying to make them more perfect (as America’s founders so eloquently put it in the Preamble.)

One great tragedy of our time is that we’ve forgotten this. We see “institutions” as belonging to other people, not to ourselves. (Some do, but many could be ours if we cared enough.)

We assume total corruption without even asking questions. We don’t want to consider the possibility that we’re only looking at ordinary people doing the best they can with the realities they see and the complex mixtures of self-interested and principled disagreements they must navigate. We instinctively throw obstacles in their way, as if that were noble. It hardly ever occurs to us that it’s our responsibility to do the hard work of making things better.

The irony is: we all know that the only route to fulfillment is to do something bigger than ourselves. To do that, you have to work with other people. Nowadays, we tend to glorify transient teams that self-organize around a given task and then come apart as soon as that task is (or isn’t) successfully completed. Teams are the quintessential form of organization for people who don’t want to commit irrevocably to anything.

But teams aren’t adequate to the really big things we need to accomplish: things that take years, decades, lifetimes. Maybe a few rare people can help accomplish those big things by writing on their own, alone, in a garret. But for most of us, if you want to be part of something big, important, and lasting, you need to be part of an institution.

And that means subordinating part of yourself to that institution, with all its attendant forces and constraints. It means constantly figuring out what compromises you can accept and which are a bridge too far. It means trying to revitalize institutions against the entropy, heartache, thousand natural shocks that human things are heir to (sorry, Will). Sometimes it means building entirely new institutions. But whenever you’re talking about the forces that make society possible — whether it’s Putnam’s bowling leagues, Tocqueville’s voluntary civic associations, or even the non-voluntary Social Security system — strong institutions are indispensable.

Sociologists like Max Weber and Jürgen Habermas wrote about how modernity created impersonal institutions to replace traditional charismatic forms of authority with something intended to be more rational and legal. The European Union is perhaps the quintessential example, the apotheosis of this phenomenon.

But precious few people “love” the EU: they support it because they think it offers the potential of an incrementally better life, or because abandoning it would point Europe back towards the horrors of the 20th century’s two world wars.

I think we need to somehow imbue or re-imbue bureaucracy with a bit of sacred magic and inspiration; maybe even a sense of quest. That means escaping a fundamental paradox: squaring the circle, cutting the Gordian Knot. If it’s even possible, I can think of only one place to start: to recall why we created these institutions, and why anyone joined them in the first place.

If we’re looking to create just a tiny bit of magic, we could do worse than starting with Rowling: We should be proud of our enduring desire to join together, seeking better, safer, fairer lives, for ourselves and for millions of others.


**For an interesting counterpoint, read Mark Leibovich’s new piece on the struggles of Reince Priebus, that rare individual who has actually, consciously made the decision to dedicate his life to the Republican Party.


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