Dignity and the Wellsprings of American Politics: Part 1

It is customary to describe American politics in terms of traditional ideological categories — liberal vs. conservative — or discrete issue polarities — such as disputes over the size of government — or in terms of racial/ethnic/religious identities and prejudices. These are, to be sure, powerful tools for understanding the give and take of American politics as suggested by their staying power as tools of journalistic and political science accounts of American politics.

It seems to me that, as powerful as these tools are, they miss something important about the nature of democracy and especially democratic change. They work for normal times and for the normal incremental working out of political conflict. But to explain the broader tides of American history and the politics of our time I think they offer an incomplete picture of political behavior both of elites and ordinary citizens.

What they miss is what I call the politics of dignity. What I will attempt to do in this post is sketch out what I mean by this concept and provide some brief examples of dignity politics. In a later post, I will explore how these ideas can help us make sense of our own time.

My starting point is the book Troubled Refuge: Struggling for Freedom in the Civil War by Chandra Manning. It is a classic example of what American historians do so well: a detailed monograph on a particular time and place, in this case the refugee camps of freedpeople during the civil war. They were, of course, called ‘contraband’ camps back then but the author shows that in many ways they were among the first true refugee camps as we understand that term today.

One of her main points Is that freedpeople had their own conception of what citizenship meant to them. Citizenship didn’t mean only or even primarily the right to vote — which we think of today as the sine qua non of citizenship. Rather what they sought was a direct relationship with the Federal government, something African-Americans had never had, a relationship that would result in their having rights to marry, to be educated, to own land, to travel as they wished and to be free to the extent possible of white domination.

Put differently, and in my language, they sought a citizenship of dignity. A citizenship that would enable them to be fundamentally the equal of whites, recognized as humans of equal worth by their government. Political activity and conflict that is about a citizenship of dignity, whether that of the freedpeople or of others, I will refer to in this post variously as ‘dignity politics’ ‘politics of dignity’ and so forth, depending on which phrasing seems to fit the particular context best. The critical elements that define this kind of politics are always the same regardless of the words used: claims to equal citizenship and worth by one or more groups and a demand that this be recognized by the government.

Claims to equal dignity often amount to claims for equal treatment with other groups. Certainly this is the norm. But there is no inherent reason why this has to be the case. Depending on their particular situation a group might make some claims more central than others or even ignore claims that you or I might consider more important. And of course the type and scope of claims made by a group can change over time as we will see in some of the examples that follow.

Claims to dignity, unlike, say, claims to money to buy audio-visual equipment for a school are difficult to handle within the normal give and take of political life. Few people will go to extremes over financial matters. People will go to extremes to make, defend and attack dignity claims. This is because dignity involves fundamental rights and privileges. As a result, political conflict about dignity is more likely to lead to non-electoral mobilization, intense political threats and even violence than other kinds of politics.

Dignity politics is not identical to what is often called ‘identity politics’; the efforts by racial, ethnic, gender or groups to obtain political rights and resources. Identity politics does not necessarily require a fundamental re-wiring of the relationships between group members and government. Identity politics may in fact simply be a form of ordinary day-to-day political bargaining. The essence of dignity politics is not a claim for specific resources but, rather, claims about fundamental recognition and rights vis-à-vis the government, especially the Federal government.

The line between the claims of ordinary politics, whether identity based or not, and the politics of dignity is not simplify a question of one being about dollars and cents and the other being about basic human rights. For one can, over time, slide into the other. A sustained policy of inadequate funding, say of urban, primarily African-American schools may eventually give rise to claims that such discrepancies deprive children and their parents of fundamental dignity. Conversely, if police killings of Black suspects were on a steady and measurable downward path for the last decade from, say 100 a year to 5, it is doubtful that the Black Lives Matter movement would have emerged or had such force, even though the unjustifiable taking of even one life is a violation of basic decency and human rights.

The distinction between a politics of dignity and ordinary politics is thus often rooted less in the specific and detailed elements of the claim than in the moral and ethical language used to justify the claim. When a claim for more funding is couched in language like this — “This new equipment will enable us to provide a richer education experience for students in our special education classes” — this is a claim couched in the language of ordinary politics. When the same claim is made like this — “This new equipment rectifies generations of discrimination against our children and is essential for them to obtain fair treatment from their government” — this is a claim of dignity politics.

Claims rooted in ordinary politics and claims rooted in dignity politics can be pressed at the same time. They are not so much competing modes of argument as complements. The choice of which type of claim is likely to be rooted in perceptions about appropriate tactics and strategy in specific situations.

The Civil Rights movement illustrates how the types of claims pressed publicly may change based on the historical situation. Although the NAACP and other civil rights organizations never accepted Plessy vs. Ferguson as morally or constitutionally valid, they did elect for many years to primarily pursue legal cases within its framework, seeking to show that existing facilities were not equal and thus failed even Plessy standards. Because they did not directly challenge the existing constitutional order, these were not dignity claims in the sense I mean it here. Only as the movement gained strength during the New Deal and WWII and the Democratic party began, at least in its Northern wing, to be open to advocating for Civil Rights did the NAACP dramatically change its legal argument and seek to overturn Plessy completely in the Board of Education cases. This shift in emphasis and to language also used by the SCLC and the other organizations of the civil rights effort, led to a social movement with great moral and political force. This is a classic example of how a politics of dignity can transform in multiple ways political argument and how changing political contexts can lead to the types of political arguments that groups make.

Similarly, issue areas can move back and forth between the domains of ordinary politics and dignity politics over time. Consider, for instance, the 100-odd year effort on the part of the labor movement to obtain recognition from the Federal government of their legitimate role in American life. Much of the violence and repression around labor politics in the late 19th and early 20th century revolved around the reluctance of governing and business elites to grant that recognition. That is, they refused to dignify the labor movement as a legitimate part of the American constellation and to create a political space where labor’s leaders could operate as equals of business or other elites.

The New Deal changed this. It didn’t change it overnight and we would do well not to overstate the amount of ‘dignity’ and ‘citizenship’ granted to labor leaders. Nonetheless, the Wagner and NLRB provided a framework in which labor could have its rights recognized. For the next half-century this had the effect of transforming the relationship between labor and management into one of incremental argumentation, of give and take between protagonists who recognized the legitimacy and dignity claims of the other.

Over the last 30 years or so we have gradually moved from that world to one in which the essential dignity and citizenship of the labor movement is increasingly denied by business elites and Republican politicians. It isn’t simply the on-going and increasingly fierce opposition to union efforts to organize specific plants or industries that shows this. Consider also the accelerating attacks on the very premise of union legitimacy: the right to collectively represent all workers in a bargaining unit and to obtain as a matter of right financial support from them. Right-to-work laws and the limitations on bargaining imposed on public unions in a number of states, such as Wisconsin, are, from this perspective, a rejection of the claim to equal citizenship, to equal dignity of the labor movement.

The Civil Rights and labor movement examples illustrate the general principle that claims to equal dignity are always contestable and always likely to be contested, whatever those claims may be. This is particularly true of claims on behalf of those who in some way or another are outside the dominant social and economic groups in our society. The circle of those entitled to a citizenship rooted in equal dignity can shrink or expand over time. It is at the boundaries of the circle, at the points where groups are either brought in or defined out, that the critical political fights of an era take place.

Although it is tempting to think of this process as always involving the rights of those without status or privilege, arguments about dignity can affect ‘in-groups’ at times. Indeed, it may be just those conflicts that give rise to the greatest threats to the survival of polities. Take, for instance, the Civil War.

Much recent scholarship on the Civil War makes the point that while the war was fundamentally about slavery it was not, at least in its immediate causes, about rights for the enslaved. Rather the war emerged because Southern enslavers insisted that their right to enslave must extend to all the land of the United States, whether territory or state, slave or free. Put differently, the South insisted that only if slavery was everywhere could they have truly equal citizenship with the North.

It was the North’s refusal to grant this; to refuse to say that slavery was a national institution; to insist that the South’s citizenship claims was only local that led to the rise of the Republican party in the 1850s. The North in essence refused to dignify — to grant to the South an equal right to its conception of citizenship rights. Precisely because this conflict revolved around dignity politics, it became an irrepressible conflict. The war, as it must, came. The refusal of the North to grant the South equal dignity also illustrates that it is not always the case that those seeking dignity are virtuous and those denying it evil. Each case, each situation, must be judged on its own merits.

The explosive power of dignity politics is what gives it its power to bring about large-scale change. It is also why opposition to dignity claims is often equally intense. For the power to define who is and who is not entitled to equal dignity in a polity, and what dignity means, is the most fundamental type of political power.

Today, the passions of dignity politics drive our politics in ways that were hard to imagine even 10 years ago. How and why that is the case and what the implications may be are topics for future posts.