Defining Terms: An Addendum on “Classical” Political Discourse

Not too long ago, I published some of my thoughts after reading through the recent New Yorker profile of Mark Zuckerberg. That post can be found here. While I have no intention of rehashing the arguments within it, there is one central concept which I relied heavily on when making my case that would benefit greatly from being more precisely defined. As is the case with most prompts in the right direction, this desire to further clarify came from a conversation with a close friend. A day after publishing the post we discussed the core argument I posited within it, and he asked a series of insightful questions attempting to distinguish exactly what I meant when I used the term “classical” political discourse.

Throughout the course of our conversation, we identified three elements which needed to be present in order to satisfy the definition of “classical.” These are important features to highlight, seeing as they demonstrate its attractive character, as opposed to the chaos which is passing as discourse in our current technological age. As I have written before, it seems that we are losing our grip on the capacity for deep reflection and deliberation with every passing day. Perhaps by identifying those elements which set a historically grounded example of fruitful interaction within political contexts, we can push the needle just slightly back in a sane direction.

As a disclaimer, this list is by no means exhaustive or scholarly in any fashion, nor is it meant to claim that these features were equally represented in all possible historical examples. It is merely the product of two earnest minds in deep reflection, reminiscing about the good ol’ days when gentlemen used to settle disputes with pistols and twenty paces.

It may also be noted that each feature is closely related to their counterparts. This is to be expected. All three draw closely from a unifying framework, the logic of which can immediately be seen to run contrary to the dominant systems of discourse in our day. So, in the spirit of the pen and pistol wielding Alexander Hamilton, here are the three classical features.


The necessity of possessing a vested interest in the outcome of a discussion cannot be overstated as a criteria of true political discourse; and by virtue of limitations common to almost all of humanity, what has historically determined that vested interest is a certain amount of physical proximity with those whom one is engaged in such discussions. Having skin in the game, so to speak, is an essential factor in assessing whether or not someone is caught up in political discourse or just noisy banter. And it is only sensible to conclude that the closer the geographical location, the greater will be the convergence of political considerations to be accommodated. In other words, the amount of skin in the game is directly correlated with the proximity of one’s political neighbors, and the resultant interests they are simultaneously vying for alongside of your own. Of course, this is nothing else besides an inescapable observation about human history. It’s quite difficult disputing or collaborating with someone when one has never come in contact with them—or does so only occasionally.

It seems apparent then that what has always given rise to political interactions is an attempt to alleviate the challenges and obstacles that are generated via human interaction. These may include the apportionment of various natural resources among competing groups, the determination of hierarchies of influence, the shaping of future communities, and a whole host of similar questions. After all, there is only a limited amount of water available. There is only so much land to go around on which to grow or hunt food, and only so many tribal leaders that can decide who gets the food once it’s there. Historically speaking, these have been the baseline questions political deliberations have centered on. Only after their establishment can the more complex offshoots of societal regulation spring up. And yet, no matter how complex these considerations may become, they are inescapably grounded to the constraints of place, becoming increasingly potent the closer they migrate to one’s own physical location.

When an individual—or community of individuals—is able to throw up their hands and declare “What difference does it make to me? Let them worry about that.” it is clear that they were not previously engaging in actual political discourse. They were occupied with some sort of abstract thinking about another geographical, social, philosophical or economic scenario. At the very moment when they can no longer turn away from such discussion with disinterest is precisely the point at which they enter into political discourse. When they cannot afford to allow such determinations to be neglected because they—or their family, town, city, or country—will suffer disadvantage in some way, they are engaged in a toil to preserve the integrity of their political footing.

Of course, the reason I identify the factor of locality as uniquely indicative of classical modes of discourse is because all conception of it has essentially vanished today. Following closely in the wake of the technological revolution that has been exponentially gaining momentum in the past few centuries, the notion of locality has been massaged and expanded to the point of near extinction. To anticipate the objection of a critical reader here, while communication and political interaction has indeed been occurring on a worldwide scale ever since the emergence of various empires, the obstacles associated with doing so (e.g. months needed to deliver a message, limited bandwidth of space and complexity) meant that only the most vital information traversed the world. Not just that, but only those with enough social connections were able to utilize the necessary resources for doing so and could pull it off effectively. Beyond merely sending letters or messages, this is to mention nothing of the gargantuan task of mobilizing armies, fleets, and the transportation of goods. So naturally, unless you were Genghis Khan or Caesar, these types of constraints demanded an especially close attention to more local considerations, and vested interests arose in turn from this limited geographical framework.

Contrast this with our modern situation, where companies like SpaceX are seriously proposing the prospect of intercontinental travel via rockets. Let that one sink in for just a moment. Not a hundred years ago, our ancestors would sprout gray hairs waiting for a traveler who was crawling across the Atlantic ocean on a wooden boat; we now hardly bat an eye when St. Musk pitches the idea of intercontinental transportation in under an hour, while hurdling through outer space in a reusable rocket. As a result, in a technological scenario such as the one we encounter today, it becomes increasingly difficult—almost to the point of impossibility—to parse out exactly what qualifies as a local political consideration. When the full weight of political realities from a geographically alien and socially unique group of people can be transported into the very center of our conscious attention in a matter of moments—and this may happen a dozen times in even one day—the impulse to maintain the primacy of local considerations begins to seem not only increasingly foolish, but barely even registers in the minds of those within a given political body. The assimilation of a global political burden by a comparatively small grouping of people, where a local burden has historically been taken up, can only have an immensely incoherent result at best. I will leave it to my reader to ponder the implications of this reality. Spoiler alert: they’re quite messy.

Here I will turn to an excerpt from Neil Postman’s book Amusing Ourselves to Death to round out this discussion of locality. In a chapter entitled “The Peek-a-Boo World,” Postman notes the seismic shift in public discourse that accompanied the advent of the telegraph, and its effects on how information was relayed in the newspapers across the country:

“It was not long until the fortunes of newspapers came to depend not on the quality or utility of the news they provided, but on how much, from what distances, and at what speed. James Bennett of the New York Herald boasted that in the first week of 1848, his paper contained 79,000 words of telegraphic content—of what relevance to his readers, he didn’t say. Only four years after Morse opened the  nation’s first telegraph line on May 24, 1844, the Associated Press was founded, and news from nowhere, addressed to no one in particular, began to crisscross the nation. Wars, crimes, crashes, fires, floods—much of it the social and political equivalent of Adelaide’s whooping cough—became the content of what people called ‘the news of the day.’ “


In keeping with the constraints that adhering to a local arena of politics dictates, considerations centering around the role that proper periods of time play in a healthy discourse follow close behind. Any attempts to imagine what political processes may have looked like in the past requires such mental gymnastics on this point that it is incredibly hard to accurately pull off. That said, a few nearly extinct words may help to paint a picture of the alien landscape that was classical political discourse: deliberation, reflection, and analysis.

The degree to which we now inhabit an entirely different universe of politics is nearly impossible to overstate, and the concept of time—and subsequently timelines on which events historically have transpired—is no exception. Whereas political dialogue was disseminated in the recent past as fast as a printing press could spit out pamphlets and travel via horseback across the countryside, and in the distant past as fast as groups of people could verbally pass ideas amongst themselves, we now inhabit a political context in which one’s private thoughts can be made accessible to millions of people instantaneously. To put it another way, we can now engage in these discussions as fast as the neurons in our brains can send our thumbs careening across a screen. While a case can certainly be made for all the benefits this has wrought, when applying even an ounce of honest reflection here, one cannot escape some of the terrifying implications which naturally follow from this realization. Once again, seeing as these would take me too far afield, I will leave it to the reader to tread this path. For now, I’ll instead turn to an instructive example on this point to help illustrate the distinctions between classical and modern forms of political discourse.

David Herbert Donald, in his book Lincoln (which I’ve written about in another capacity here), relates the chaotic question of land ownership that plagued Kentucky farmers, including Lincoln’s father Thomas, in the early 19th century:

Small farmers like Thomas Lincoln also worried about the titles to their land. Kentucky never had a United States land survey; it was settled in a random, chaotic fashion, with settlers fixing their own bounds to the property they claimed: a particular tree here, a rock there, and so on. Soon the map of the state presented a bewildering overlay of conflicting land claims, and nobody could be sure who owned what. So uncertain were land titles that Kentucky became one of the first states to do away with the freehold property qualification for voting—not so much out of devotion to democratic principles as because even the wealthy often had trouble proving they owned clear title to their acres. Naturally, the courts were filled with litigation, and the lawyers in Kentucky were busy all the time.

This scenario is particularly jam-packed, and offers us no shortage of heavily weighted political questions to pick from. At least four can be identified at first glance: the interplay between state and federal governments and their respective governing philosophies, the incongruence of the landholding aspirations of private citizens, questions regarding voting rights, and of course legal proceedings and the just settlements of these territorial disputes. Donald even goes on to mention the dynamic that accompanied cases involving slaveholding planters, and the economic advantage they possessed over smaller operations like the one Thomas Lincoln ran. They simply had more monetary capacity to outlast their poorer opponents in court by enlisting backing from experienced and capable lawyers, and could incrementally push them out of competing for the land titles one case at a time.

On any of these issues, one can easily imagine various interests and stances emerging over time, with arguments being put forth on either side. And there were certainly no shortage of outlets for such discussion. It would have organically sprung up everywhere from local taverns, town halls and town squares, publications, courtrooms, law offices, and local or state governmental proceedings.

Of course, the common thread running through all these possible political questions and their related arenas of discourse is that each one took long periods of time to develop and eventually resolve themselves. Legal documents had to be drawn up by hand. Speeches were crafted, practiced, and delivered with passion—and hopefully poise. Even beyond individual speeches, the prospect of intricate public debate between two capable opponents attracted many listeners. These debates occurred in print as well, often taking weeks, months, and even years to run their course, simply because of the constraints of publication frequency.

The ratification of the Constitution serves as another superb example of this type of discourse. The document was put to the states for consideration in late September of 1787, and wasn’t ratified by the final state until May of 1790. This summary from the National Archives details how the debate took shape during the intervening period, and illustrates my point quite nicely:

Ratification was not a foregone conclusion. Able, articulate men used newspapers, pamphlets, and public meetings to debate ratification of the Constitution. Those known as Antifederalists opposed the Constitution for a variety of reasons. . .  The most serious criticism was that the Constitutional Convention had failed to adopt a bill of rights proposed by George Mason. In New York, Governor George Clinton expressed these Antifederalist concerns in several published newspaper essays under the pen name Cato, while Patrick Henry and James Monroe led the opposition in Virginia.

Those who favored ratification, the Federalists, fought back, convinced that rejection of the Constitution would result in anarchy and civil strife. Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay responded to Clinton under the pen name Publius. Beginning in October 1787, these three penned 85 essays for New York newspapers and later collected them into 2 volumes entitled The Federalist, which analyzed the Constitution, detailed the thinking of the framers, and responded to the Antifederalist critics.

The political results that these historical examples produced were clearly not perfect. I maintain no delusions regarding the ugliness of our political past on certain points—one has only to read through the questions dealt with in Federalist No. 54 to come crashing back down to earth. So let the record show that I harbor no overly rosy impressions of the past. Instead, the point truly under consideration here is this: these systems of discourse afforded longer spans of time in which to field the objections of others, gather new information, and engage in rigorous and precise analysis of the questions at hand. From such lengthy deliberation arose the best possibility for a robust articulation of one’s own position, as well as the requisite knowledge of one’s opponent and the relevant facts of the case at large.

Contrast that with the careening frenzy that is our modern political discourse. To say nothing of the speeding trainwreck that has been the recent Kavanaugh Supreme Court confirmation hearings, this excerpt from an editorial piece in response to the New York Review of Books fiasco by Quillette editor-in-chief Claire Lehmann captures wonderfully the furious pace of our political discourse today:

Another week, another defenestration. This time it’s Ian Buruma, forced to resign his post as editor of the New York Review of Books after publishing an essay written by Jian Ghomeshi – a disgraced Canadian radio journalist who was acquitted on several charges of sexual assault back in 2016. . . The rate at which such purges are happening now is disquieting. Ghomeshi’s piece was published online just last Friday and Buruma is out the door before the article hit the presses. Social media has sped time up. In the world of Twitter, outrage is instantaneous, and deliberation impossible. Skittish organisations and corporations seem genuinely unable to withstand the pressure of online warriors, putting everyone’s employment at even greater risk in already precarious industries.

Commentary on the pathologies of ideological purges aside (which is also spot-on), her diagnosis of the frenetic rate of modern discourse rings true. (Further thoughts from Lehmann on that particular case can be found in this interview.) Naturally, what is true of this specific instance is also true of any other given example in our broader cultural or political contexts. The immediate demand made of all parties engaged in whatever brouhaha they find themselves in is not precise examination of the issue at hand, but a sharp and impulsive pronouncement. To act quickly is to act righteously. To step back, reflect, or deliberate is taken as a sign of weakness—or worse, interpreted as an indication that malicious intent is in the works. No longer are delayed and thoughtful judgments seen for what they truly are: the very thing most likely to lead to a deep alignment with the truth. That such an accelerated, chaotic scenario as the one cited by Lehmann is now a commonplace occurrence is concerning to say the least, and a telling sign of the pell-mell character of our modern discourse.

The timeline has indeed been “sped up,” and, in many important ways, it is hard to believe we are better off for it.

Public Participation

Naturally, the chord that binds together the two classical features identified above is the very people who are caught up in and deeply affected by such discourse. It is hard to envision any sort of productive politics, playing out over extended periods of time and within a local radius, that doesn’t involve an informed populace capable of fielding sustained interrogation on the issues of the day. It does no good if neighbors can fume at each other until the cows come home; if the body politic as a whole cannot temper the elements of locality and time with an equal amount of attuned wisdom for the question at hand, there is little hope of generating solutions instead of more chaos. And it seems that our friends in the past—whether it be ancient or recent history—were far better equipped on this front.

This is where, at first glance, my case for the woes of modern discourse appears to break down. One could argue that the current capacity to become informed on important questions has been unequivocally improved in the last few hundred years, and this argument would certainly yield some compelling points. While it does nothing to address the quality of that political conversation, at the very least the ubiquity of education and technologies enabling the effective exchange of information cannot be neglected as potential forces for good. This perspective should be granted its due weight, and any serious critique of our modern discourse cannot neglect these considerations.

And yet, there is ultimately a deep flaw in this simplistic argument, and its endpoint is anything but compelling. Making such a case is like claiming that one’s personal hygiene is better served by showering in the middle of a category five hurricane. In a strange way this is somewhat correct, albeit accidentally so. If one were to venture such an attempt, they would indeed have far more water at their disposal. Ostensibly, they would be cleaner as a result. They would also be dead.

Similar to my observations above about locality and deliberative timelines, we seem to be dealing with a problem of bandwidth here, where too much of a good thing now begins to crowd out any positive effects it may have had up to a certain amount. There appears to be some point of diminishing returns at which an exponential increase in the thing previously helpful has wrought results antithetical to its original purpose. Expanding one’s geographical reach can be a good thing, up until the point that they become completely unmoored from a sense of place. Increasing the rate of conversations can help to ensure that they do not drag on for too long, but can also unleash a torrent of useless and counterproductive input. So it is with public conversation. We have exponentially increased our capacity to insert ourselves in whatever conversation we please, thereby ironically diminishing our ability to contribute anything resembling wisdom to the proceedings. Whereas previous political contexts allowed for familiarity with the intricate details of any given conversation, such a mastery seems an impossibility in our day. Classical discourse was in many ways capable of fielding the attentive discernment and contributions of an informed public; the forte of modern discourse seems to be the public’s unfailing production of ill-informed noise. Of course, the cause of this is revealed in large part by Postman’s commentary cited above. When most of what has been consumed by the public for decades is mindless mush and context-free torrents of irrelevant information, their incapacity to formulate coherence on many issues of intricacy is not surprising in the least. We have elected to use a hurricane rather than a faucet. The integrity of our discourse has suffered greatly as a result.

Furthermore, while the discussion above regarding the frantic speed of our twenty four hour news cycle is hugely important, even that does not address all the ailments our discourse is faced with in modern times. The truly unsettling thing about the nature of our news cycle is not just that it happens at such an accelerated rate, but that it seems to breed within itself a million different veins, each one operating almost entirely isolated from the others. We are all purportedly talking about the same things (e.g. Trump, campus culture, elections, healthcare), but are not even remotely conducting a unified conversation on anything. This seems to be true even of the dominant stories in the news, as the recent Kavanaugh debacle demonstrated so clearly. The speed of discourse is obviously a problem needing to be addressed; but that speed, coupled with the fact that there are endlessly variegated conversations which are occurring in political ecosystems (that are themselves fractured to an alarming degree) evokes little hope for a common political conversation. A unified framework for political discourse seems to be all but extinct. In its place are countless insulated algorithmic streams one can be swept away upon.

In contrast, returning to the previous examples of Donald’s discussion of land disputes and the debate over the ratification of the Constitution, it is easy to envision how an informed populace serves as the backbone of sensible and productive discourse. As mentioned, these discussions would have been transpiring within arenas that were accessible to those who were affected by their outcomes; they also were developing over a reasonable period of time within which to weigh the merits of all arguments presented. So, to take print as an example, when a debate played out in a weekly publication local readers could familiarize themselves with the contours of the arguments coming from one party, and await the rebuttal soon to follow the next week. The intervening period allowed for the audience’s extensive digestion of the question at stake, so that if the opposing party were to propose a response already discredited by attentive readers, this spelled immediate defeat and discreditation.  Naturally, this meant that those conducting the discourse had to attach a deep sense of gravity to each one of their utterances. As a figure in the public spotlight, it is quite the formidable prospect to imagine that the majority of one’s audience has the capacity to detect and dismantle even the slightest hint of falsehood or weak argumentation.

That point alone makes classical discourse far more alluring than its modern counterpart, and is a fitting place to conclude this part of our discussion. Something pivotal is lost when the public at large no longer maintains its ability to offer sober contributions to political discourse. With the loss of this capacity comes the natural inability to field a vigorous accountability towards those who hold authority in our politics. We cannot ensure they act in our best interest if we can only guess at what that may look like. While we have obviously not yet reached that point entirely, we also don’t seem to be trending in an encouraging direction either.

A New Problem?

In Federalist No. 37, Madison observes the effects of human nature on political discourse:

“It is a misfortune, inseparable from human affairs, that public measures are rarely investigated with that spirit of moderation which is essential to a just estimate of their real tendency to advance or obstruct the public good; and that this spirit is more apt to be diminished than promoted, by those occasions which require an unusual exercise of it.”

In other words, us humans are quite terrible at this whole rational discourse thing, especially when it matters most.  We have been ever since we first opened our mouths.

I share this excerpt because it helps to clarify the nature of my critique. To read what I’ve written here as a tirade against the pure evils of modernity, while worshiping the past as some sort of paradise would be incorrect. I harbor no such delusions.

Madison himself inhabited that period which I have been referring to as classical, and yet even he decried the difficulties of engaging in productive political discourse when our pesky human nature keeps impeding such efforts. In fact, the entire collection of Federalist papers are shot through with similar observations about the public’s need to set aside their passions and come to the discussion with an eye for factual analysis, rather than jealousies and intrigue. So if even those within classical realms of discourse acknowledged this, how much more ought we do so ourselves?

This is the central point I wish to make here. Humans will always suffer from a limited capacity to engage in productive political conversations. It is a reality from which we will never escape. The responsibility lies then with each new generation to maintain a vigilance on this front, and to ensure that they are attentive to the ways in which their ability to do so has eroded over time.

I firmly believe that looking to those who have come before us may offer some clues on how to do so with nobility and wisdom. Much is lost as we move away from the grounding elements of locality, deliberation, and true public participation; much is gained when we can return to them with a deep sobriety and willingness to learn.

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