Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Diagnosing democracy: Why parenthood is a bad model for government

Published in the Portland Phoenix

Political theory has, for centuries, come down to an analogy of anatomy, or of family: the head of the government is the head of the body politic, or the head of the household. Other government agencies are the limbs and organs of the body, or the working adults in the home. Citizens are the cells that make up the body, or the children.

In The Parent As Citizen: A Democratic Dilemma (University of Minnesota Press), Brian Duff, a Portland Phoenix food writer whose day job is as an assistant professor of political science at the University of New England, argues that view is fundamentally destructive to a democratic society. It puts citizens in a subservient role — that of children — and government officials in a paternalistic role, Duff writes. That inversion of proper accountability in a democracy — where the citizens should be in charge of the government workers — has caused unseen and untold damage to our society.

He starts with the political discussion of parenthood, showing how the experience of parenting is considered to be formative and vital in the development of a political player. Then, examining the writings of Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Friedrich Nietzsche (as classical philosophers and political theorists) and two towering modern political-philosophical figures, Richard Rorty and Cornel West, Duff shows why focusing on parenthood is so dangerous to democracy. He specifically chronicles the hazards — including intolerance, fundamentalism, fear, and disempowerment — that appear when equating a democracy with leaders and citizens to a family with parents and children.

This is not a prescriptive work, but rather illustrates a heretofore unseen problem, asking others to study it, examine it, learn from it, and perhaps ultimately forge a solution to this failing intellectual model of our failing political system.