Aristotle famously called man a political animal, and much has been said about what he meant when describing man as such. It could be that man is political simply because he is social. His existence requires the presence of other men, and if he is to continue existing, he will have to find ways to cooperate with other men so as to grow food, build a granary and, at times, defend the community. In the polis of ancient Greece, however, Aristotle’s concept of the zoon politikon was incomplete without another concept — that of man as a zoon logon ekhon, or a living being capable of speech. For the Greeks, man himself was not defined by the basic necessities of life (eating, producing children, not dying), but rather by the unique capability of speech. Speech itself was what made politics possible, and it was speech, specifically persuasion, that constituted political action.
Imagine what politics might have looked like in ancient Greece. Presumably, men spoke to one another differently than they might speak to their wives or slaves. They treated one another as equals, and when the citizens of the polis had a problem, speech provided the means to solve it. Obviously, this process required a certain amount of cooperation. After all, dialogue is not dialogue without two individuals who set out to persuade one another and are also willing to be persuaded. When observers of American politics refer to “bipartisanship,” perhaps they are, on some level, citing this understanding of politics and speech.
It seems clear enough that bipartisanship does exist in American politics. Newspapers publish articles about bipartisan support for gun control and immigration reform, and insofar as newspapers inform our perception of reality, then we are all aware of what bipartisanship is, how it works or does not work and why it is desirable. But do our politicians truly speak with one another the way ancient Greeks might have?
Think back to any one of the half a dozen “budget debates” that occurred over the past five years. We witnessed Obama and Boehner seated around a conference table, papers strewn about, as they engaged in many serious discussions. While this image has become a part of our understanding of politics, it is hard to believe that we have any sort of real political communication going on. We know exactly how the majority of Republicans view tax increases and how most Democrats view entitlement programs. Here we have two men who carry the party platform as if it were a club, useful only to beat the other on the head, and Aristotle’s concept of the political remains absent.
There is never a moment in American politics where persuasion actually seems of any use. Party conventions and speeches have simply become opportunities for groupthink — occasions to express ideals congruent ideals long-touted by each party that help affirm the ground we stand on. This is not to say that bipartisanship does not happen, cannot happen or is not desirable, but that bipartisanship is, as it exists today, largely a farce. After all, both parties tend to agree on the fundamental questions of how we will structure our society. Capitalism is not usually questioned. Consumption is always encouraged. The realities of war, poverty and overpopulation remain largely unacknowledged. No one seems to think, or more importantly, to speak independently.
Michael Dean is a fourth-year political science major.
A version of this article appeared on page 8 of the April 16, 2013 print edition of the Nexus.
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