President Barack Obama, and the American left generally, have become fond of one of MLK’s more famous quotes:
“The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.”
It’s developed into a kind of mantra in a year whose electoral outcomes have been easier to square with a quote attributed to the quantum physicist Niels Bohr:
“It’s hard to make predictions, especially about the future”
It’s important to resolve the apparent tension between these two assertions. They are both true. If the left fails to appreciate this, they are likely to repeat their recent failures.
The President himself, the day after the election, took a stab at this modern theodicy:
“We zig and zag and sometimes we move in ways that some people think is forward and others think is moving back.”
“History doesn’t move in a straight line. It zigs and zags.”
Evidently we are to interpret the phenomenon of right wing populism as a statistical fluctuation, a temporary setback which will be set right merely by obtaining a larger sample size.
This is the wrong attitude. It’s implicitly founded on an overly literal interpretation of MLK’s quote. It’s true that, in some general sense, humanity succeeds over the long run in creating a world which is a better expression of our basic values. And that’s important. But this includes both liberal values like equality and freedom, alongside conservative values like order and loyalty. More significantly, it does not mean that some particular policy instantiation of these values is destined to be the law of the land, sooner or later. It does not mean we are destined to have universal government sponsored single payer health care, or a path to citizenship for illegal aliens, more or less along recent liberal proposals, eventually, if we just wait long enough for history to surrender to us.
The reason the arc of history bends towards justice is that there are values that we all share. No one in their right mind, liberal or conservative, wants citizens to lack adequate healthcare, or to break up families by deporting people. But these values we all share have to be squared with one another. Often conservatives resist liberal policy solutions because there are other concerns, like economic efficiency and the rule of law, that need to be addressed as well.
We’re able to resolve these tensions through a commitment to dialogue and a confidence in human ingenuity. We bend the arc of the moral universe precisely BECAUSE we’re willing to be open to the uncertainty of human history. In this uncertainty is the hope we can resolve our conflicts in a creative and therefore a priori unpredictable way that expresses ALL our values.
Commitment to creative and collaborative problem solving is what fuels the fire of the engine of progress. When the left assumes its particular policy proposals are inevitable, or when it assumes opposition political movements like the current right wing populist uprisings are just statistical aberrations rather than an indication that further dialogue and conflict resolution are needed, it shuts down this process. Ironically, liberal faith in the “arc”, when misunderstood, can be its undoing.
It’s worth returning to the actual originator of the idea of the arc, the abolitionist and small d democrat Theodore Parker:
“I do not pretend to understand the moral universe; the arc is a long one, my eye reaches but little ways; I cannot calculate the curve and complete the figure by the experience of sight; I can divine it by conscience. And from what I see I am sure it bends towards justice.”
Note the humility. We can have faith that in the long run our values will obtain better and better expression in the world. But only if we’re open minded when it comes to the form this expression may take and about the need to reconcile our values with the values of others.
Liberals shouldn’t become less liberal (on the contrary, now more than ever they must stand up for their values), they should become more democratic. And they needn’t lose faith in their philosophy of history, they just need a better understanding of its mechanisms and meaning.
President Obama, at his best, has understood these subtleties. Aspects of his legacy like marriage equality, which were ultimately grounded in conservative values like tradition and order as well as liberal values like tolerance, are likely to survive and become a permanent part of our society. Other accomplishments, like the health care reform law, never achieved widespread support and were implemented with party line votes or by executive orders. It’s no accident these are the most likely to be undone.
On a foundational level, politics, and therefore our ability to bend the arc of the moral universe, isn’t about technocratic ability or skill in parliamentary procedure or being good at campaigning. It’s about building consensus. And achieving that requires flexibility and open mindedness.