Politics and the Pleasure Principle

Politics and the Pleasure Principle

Faced with bitter circumstances, we gain a lot in remembering to have fun.


I detested problem sets in graduate school. I found them boring, grinding and grim. I would sit for hours trying to work through one problem after another, but I frequently ran out of energy and attention. Then I learned that a group of guys in my program worked together. Their study sessions were punctuated with off-color humor, impromptu jokes at one another’s expense and frequent games of basketball—sometimes with a real ball and other times with a wad of paper and a trash can. In the end they accomplished more and dreaded the work less. Theirs was a strategy that tapped into collaboration, renewal and playfulness as important elements of optimal problem-solving. These are tools that progressives may need in the next two years.

The problems we face are serious, and we must be serious to tackle them. But I suspect that we will also need to be creative and collaborative. No one wants to see legislators having fun on the taxpayers’ dime, and it is reasonable to demand that our political leaders be conscientious and considered, but there is also value in nurturing a pleasurable engagement with public life.

Presidential scholar James Barber has categorized America’s presidents into four types: active-positive, active-negative, passive-positive and passive-negative. Active/passive describes how much energy a president puts into his presidency, whereas positive/negative indicates whether or not a president “gives forth the feeling that he has fun in political life.” The typology is overly Freudian and reductive, but it captures the undeniable reality that some leaders seem to enjoy the hard work of governing. Presidents as disparate as Thomas Jefferson, Franklin Roosevelt and George W. Bush displayed the self-confidence, flexibility, optimism and enjoyment of leading that Barber describes as the active-positive type. These qualities are easily observed in Newark Mayor Cory Booker, who recently harnessed his simultaneously inspiring and self-effacing Twitter personality for problem-solving during the city’s paralyzing blizzard, including personally digging people out of snowbanks. He faces budget crises, decaying infrastructure and urban violence, but Booker manages to make being mayor of Newark seem like a desirable job.

Rather than waiting for President Obama, or any other leader, to embody these characteristics, it may be time to cultivate an active-positive progressive movement. Liberal progressives accurately sense that circumstances are dire. Unsustainable joblessness and home foreclosures persist. Anti-immigrant rhetoric and policy remains explosive. The new Republican House insists on shredding an already inadequate social safety net, assaulting reproductive rights and overturning the fragile efforts toward progress of the past two years. With the 2012 election frenzy mounting, the small window for turning back the regressive legislation of the past decade is rapidly narrowing. In this context it is easy to embrace a workhorse mentality of grim determination.

But I worry that our effectiveness wanes as our jaws tighten and our fists clench. In these bitter circumstances we need an environment of possibility that builds camaraderie, rewards outrageous ideas and encourages resilience. In short, we need a conscious strategy of serious play.

Many American businesses have discovered that great ideas aren’t necessarily generated 9-to-5 while sitting behind a standard-issue desk wearing a blue blazer. The most successful electoral campaigns often harness positive play by reminding us that democracy is both hard work and fun. In 2008 thousands of Americans visibly enjoyed the electoral process—waiting in line for hours to see their candidates, crafting innovative campaign materials online, shouting at the pundits on the nightly news. These were not the acts of a content electorate, lulled into democratic drowsiness by a ho-hum election cycle; these were examples of fully animated citizens who though often angry were also deeply involved. Successful campaigns are steeped in information and guided by expertise, but they also tend to nurture rule-breaking and encourage openness to innovation. In that sense, they are playful.

Governing rarely offers as many opportunities for drawing outside the lines. The solidarity and creativity of the Obama campaign was quickly replaced by the sober predictability and insularity of the Obama administration.

So it will be our job to nurture pleasurable, fun, creative and collective orientations toward political tasks. Even at its most frustrating, politics brings certain pleasures: the opportunity for fellowship, the excitement of competition, the spectacle of rituals. Rather than assuming that big money will win, let’s look around for inspiring, if unlikely, candidates for local races in 2012. Quixotic campaigns sometimes prove surprisingly viable and can elicit important concessions from incumbents. Let’s make music again and videos and fashion and art that express the pathos and possibility of this moment. Most of it will be forgettable, but some of it may prove iconic. Let’s tap into social media to crowd-source creative solutions to our pressing problems. Let’s dream big, not asking whether we think our ideas are viable but instead sketching what truly just outcomes would look like. Let’s learn something new by reading the work of those with whom we disagree or are unfamiliar just to experience the pleasure of learning. Let’s take some breaks, pace ourselves and allow some joy despite the persistence of social problems, because movements are not sustainable if those who do the work are exhausted. Let’s laugh at ourselves and at the comic madness of our circumstances, recognizing that humor does not diminish the gravity of our moment but simply lightens the load as we bear it.

Far from being irresponsible, it would be wise to engage in some serious play.

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