Many years ago–more than I can now remember–as the descent of political life into nastiness and polarization was getting too prominent to ignore–I gathered some like-minded friends in an effort to form a new organization that would model civil discourse and respectful debate. I no longer even remember what we called it, but our small group included thoughtful folks of various political philosophies. What they had in common was an appreciation for the complexity of many issues, a recognition that people of good will might come to different conclusions, and a belief that political life requires a basic respect for those who come to the issues from a different, equally evidence-based, perspective.
One friend who participated dubbed the effort “The marching moderates.” What we learned, to his and my considerable chagrin, was that most moderates don’t march–and far too frequently, don’t care.
What reminded me of that long-ago effort was an article in the New York Times describing the effects of the war in Ukraine on the Russian citizens who had accommodated that country’s increasingly totalitarian politics by “tuning out” and disconnecting from political life. As the headline put it, “Russians long lived with an understanding: Stay away from politics, and live your life as you choose. The war in Ukraine wrecked that idea.”
After he first assumed office, Putin, had seemed to make Russia prosperous. As the author–who had lived several years in the country–noted, the political system he built was increasingly restrictive, but many had learned to live with it.
Many Russian liberals had gone to work for nonprofits and local governments, throwing themselves into community building — making their cities better places to live. A protest movement in 2011 and 2012 had failed, and people were looking for other ways to shape their country. Big politics were hopeless, the thinking went, but one could make a real difference in small acts.
There was another side to this bargain: Mr. Putin was seemingly constrained, as well. Political action may have been forbidden, but there was tolerance when it came to other things, for example religion, culture and many forms of expression. His own calculus for the system to run smoothly meant he had to make some room for society.
The opposition leader Alexsei Navalny, poisoned and later imprisoned by Putin, is one of the few who refused to accept that tacit bargain with autocracy. He continued to engage in direct confrontation and, as the article reports, ” he was building a nationwide opposition movement, leading people into the streets. He rejected the bargain and was willing to go to prison to defy it.”
His reported mantra was what reminded me of my own unsuccessful effort. Navalny insists that the fight isn’t good against evil–it’s good against neutral, against political passivity.
I spend a lot of time–too much time, probably–reading and writing about America’s current political environment, and despairing over the prospects for emerging from our current, very ugly confrontation with the undersides of our society. At the heart of that despair is a recognition that the truly good people who I firmly believe constitute a majority of Americans –people who are not racist, not selfish nor greedy, not terrified of being “replaced” by “the other”–people who care about their neighbors and those who are less fortunate– are going about their lives determinedly disconnected from the nasty arguments that are motivating activism and violence by a frightened and enraged minority.
Those people proudly proclaim that they “aren’t political.”
Like the Russians who focused on their communities and ignored the growth of Putin’s autocracy, they focus their volunteer efforts on local organizations–churches, arts organizations, food pantries–and they assiduously avoid getting involved in any matter that smacks of politics. They may vote, they may even post an occasional political “meme” on social media, but they reject engagement with the rigidity and hostility of today’s partisanship, avoid educating themselves about the details of policy debates, and are resolutely apolitical.
Right now, the Russians are teaching us a costly lesson about the importance of the political engagement those Americans are avoiding. We can only hope that it doesn’t take something as traumatic and destructive as a war to bring that lesson home to the Americans who have opted out of their responsibility to participate actively in self-government.