How to put the pieces back together again in our politics
Advice to people focused on the common good from the late Jonathan Sacks
These days political life and many key institutions in America are rife with divisions that prevent progress.
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, a religious leader and writer who passed away last year, offered an argument for rebuilding a framework based on the common good and shared values in his book, Morality.
Here are five key insights from this important book for leaders and people focused on trying to foster a broader sense of unity in our world, country, and institutions:
1. Morality and civility are part of the secret glue to successful societies and organizations.
Morality is born when we focus on the other, not ourselves and our own individual interests – and it’s the people who are not like us who make us grow. Sacks says morality represents:
“our commitment to others, our capacity to form bonds of belonging and care. Our sense of wellness depends on being part of one or several networks of relationship in which we are prepared to act for the benefit of others, knowing that they are prepared to do likewise for us.”
At the core of morality is a notion of respect and basic decency towards others, without bias towards their individual perspectives or personal background or characteristics. Sacks argues that civility is vital, and it is not simply just “good manners.” But rather:
“It is an affirmation that the problems of some are the problems of all, that a good society presupposes collective responsibility, that there is a moral dimension to being part of this nation, this people, this place.”
In sum, “other-based” societies and organizations survive and thrive better than those that do not.
2. Common good politics is better than “us versus them” identity politics.
Sacks issues some strong criticisms towards the divisive, “populist” politics on the right and left that have torn apart the fabrics of many open societies around the world, including here in America. He writes:
“Today’s politics, which has seen a rise in populism, is often about division and confrontation. It is about dividing a nation into ‘Us’ and ‘Them.’ It is about resentment and fear and allocation of blame. It is about anger and a sense of betrayal. It is oppositional. It proposes handing power to a strong leader who assures his or her followers that, in return for their loyalty, he or she will fight their battles for them.”
Sacks offers an alternative vision for a more inclusive politics, one that is more tolerant and pluralistic, what he terms “covenantal politics.”
“Covenantal politics… is about ‘We the people,’ bound by a sense of shared belonging and collective responsibility; about strong local communities, active citizens, and the devolution of responsibility. It is about reminding those who have more than they need of their responsibilities to those who have less than they need. It is about ensuring that everyone has a fair chance to make the most of their capacities and their lives.”
He argues that market economics and liberal politics on their own – without backing from a moral sense that puts our shared interests first and instead prioritizes more narrow groups – is a road to nowhere with even greater fragmentation ahead.
3. The best way to bring about change is through direct engagement and persuasion.
Sacks cites former U.S. President Barack Obama’s comments at an October 2019 youth summit in Chicago where Obama advised emerging leaders against a political approach that relied on condemning others online. Obama argued, “Not every issue is a clash between right and wrong. Sometimes it is between right and right, between two strong but incompatible ideals… even the bad have saving graces.”
Sacks underscores the central point Obama was making – one that is worth highlighting for those striving to change their country, political party, or a particular institution:
“…you cannot bring about change in a free society by indignation, condemnation, character assassination, and self-righteousness, all communicated by social media. You change the world by changing people, and you change people by engaging with them, recognizing that they too, are people with values and ideals of their own.”
Sacks makes the case for the need to encounter people directly as human beings – especially those with different views. In doing so, “we are capable of transforming one another,” Sacks argues.
4. Social media campaigns destroy trust and relationship capital needed to get things done.
Sacks pinpoints the destructive nature of social media on a shared sense of purpose and the negative impact it has on political life. Ironically, social media pulls people apart more than it brings them together and contributes to the social, cultural, and political fragmentation:
“In the absence of shared ideals, many conclude the best way of campaigning is to damage your opponent by ad hominem attacks. The result is division, cynicism, and a breakdown of trust.”
The algorithms incentivize division.
5. The collapse of the collective pursuit of the truth at universities and other institutions aimed at building shared knowledge and understanding.
Sacks dedicates some criticisms to dynamics overtaking many universities these days, something he sees as stifling dissenting views and closing off freedom:
“To an ever-greater extent, mob rule is taking the place of what was once the sacred mission of the university: namely, the collaborative pursuit of the truth.”
He argues instead that:
“The university must be the guardian of open debate, courteous argument, civil speaking, and respectful listening.”
These are practices that would enhance the quality of America’s politics and leading institutions working to shape the national dialogue.
This final book written by Sacks has many more important things about some features of America’s broader politics that will sound familiar to many: the politicization of victimhood and the broader decline of tolerance and respect.
It is striking to see two leading religious voices, Pope Francis and the late Sacks, from different traditions and backgrounds, converge on the same criticisms of politics and basic views of how to restructure public life. But our political systems are not at all designed or equipped to turn these moral points into reality.
Change will only occur when the people running and leading our major institutions-as well as citizens engaged in political discourse- start implementing these ideas and fixing our politics from the ground up.