The polity of discussion: Bagehot's Physics and Politics revisited in the nuclear age

by McGeorge Bundy

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Applies to our own age Walter Bagehot's mid-Victorian views on the quality of "animated moderation" and the concept he defined as "a polity of discussion." Bagehot's general theme is familiar: free and open discussion is good; secret action by unchallenged authority is bad--acceptable, even necessary, in war, but not in politics. That we have so far failed to develop a true polity of discussion is illustrated in two decisions faced by the U.S. government with respect to nuclear weapons. In 1945, the problem was the emerging reality of nuclear weapons and the need for international controls. More recently, a change in targeting policy emphasized selective retaliatory attacks. Neither decision resulted in a concrete conclusion. A polity of discussion was and is needed as a remedy against the alternative--polarization. The author contends that government by popular discussion creates better policies and support for them.

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