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When Hell Appears To Be Other Americans


The Pew Research Center published its latest survey of partisanship in American politics this past week–and with it issued another of its regular warnings about the consequences of our contemporary political polarization. The report begins with the following finding:

The overall share of Americans who express consistently conservative or consistently liberal opinions has doubled over the past two decades from 10% to 21%. And ideological thinking is now much more closely aligned with partisanship than in the past. As a result, ideological overlap between the two parties has diminished: Today, 92% of Republicans are to the right of the median Democrat, and 94% of Democrats are to the left of the median Republican.

The Pew researchers thereafter splice a steady dose of alarming trigger words and phrases – “antipathy,” “animosity,” ideological silos” – into red, purple, and blue graphs and datasets. The moral of their story: only a movement back toward a homogeneous center can restore our hopes for progress and happiness.

The problem in our Progressive (not Libertarian) Age is this: those at the center of the Pew scatterplots are not a class of temperate philosophers. Rather, they’re the politically disengaged and ideologically inconsistent. This is perhaps the part of the American citizenry least suited for popular government—one that acts politically, if and when it acts politically, primarily from impulse and passion. Ideational ignorance and material need are its calling cards, often mixed with a bit of sanctimony for being above the political fray. This combination makes it the group most susceptible to the demagogue and the one least willing to do the hard work (thinking) necessary to cast a responsible vote.

What America needs, at least in part, is more individuals who are ideologically consistent, rather than fewer–so long as their ideology respects the bounds of right and justice. What should trouble us, in other words, is not that Republicans are consistently more conservative than Democrats (or that Democrats are consistently more liberal than Republicans), but that, to cite one example, so few Democratic leaders appear to care about the ever-deepening IRS scandal.

Six weeks ago, the House voted to hold Lois Lerner in contempt of Congress for her obstruction of efforts to investigate the matter, in a vote that fell almost strictly along party lines. A grand total of six Democrats voted with the Republican majority–all six to be found on one list of most endangered Congressional Democrats or another.

Even now that it is clear that the entire IRS has contempt for Congress, the voices of Democratic congressional leaders remain muted. Apparently, then, the IRS can improperly target groups hostile to the present Administration, subject them to oppressive questioning and long delays (thereby materially affecting a competitive presidential election), impede a congressional investigation, and then “lose” the public documents capable of revealing how all this happened–and who is ultimately responsible–without a pinprick of light penetrating their partisan blinders.

The Athenian historian Thucydides provides perhaps the most clear-sighted descriptionof unhealthy partisan forces at play as Greek city-states unraveled during the Peloponnesian War:

The advocate of extreme measures was always trustworthy; his opponent a man to be suspected. To succeed in a plot was to have a shrewd head, to divine a plot a still shrewder; but to try to provide against having to do either was to break up your party and to be afraid of your adversaries. In fine, to forestall an intending criminal, or to suggest the idea of a crime where it was wanting, was equally commended until even blood became a weaker tie than party, from the superior readiness of those united by the latter to dare everything without reserve; for such associations had not in view the blessings derivable from established institutions but were formed by ambition for their overthrow. . . .

The desire to “overthrow” the “established institutions”—and the willingness to use criminal means to accomplish it–creates a community at war with itself. The moral to Thucydides’s story: the Athenian city-state made powerful by its commitment to isonomia (equality of political rights) suffered a self-inflicted death as it embraced its exact opposite: the principle that “the strong do what they will, and the weak suffer what they must.”

We argued in an essay titled  “The Republic of republics” in HBU’s The City last fall that a similar political climate has prompted many to act as if (to paraphrase Jean-Paul Sartre) “Hell is other Americans”:

Americans seem to sense that even if we were able to manage these [contemporary political] difficulties, more would soon fill their place. They are but the observable outgrowths of something more troubling: a deep division within our political community that makes talk about the common good seem either cynical or naive. Participating in American politics is now like celebrating the holidays with family members you no longer love. Hell is other Americans.

The three-headed author of The Federalist, Publius (Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay), well-read in history and intimately familiar with political in-fighting during the founding of the American regime, understood the danger that this sort of division posed to the American republic. Yet he was very careful not to overprescribe a cure.

In Federalist 9-10, Publius takes up one part of this problem—the issue of faction, a group of citizens laboring for its private advantage or seeking to undermine the rights of others. Publius makes clear in his analysis that factions have no legitimate political standing—you have no right to do political wrong. Or, as he puts it in Federalist 49, “it is the reason of the public alone, that ought to control and regulate the government.”

But since liberty is to faction what oxygen is to fire, one cannot prevent the latter without annihilating the former—a “remedy” in both cases “worse than the disease.” One, therefore, can only “control the effects” of faction through an “extended republic” that takes political justice seriously.

If faction is something like bottom-up hyper-partisanship, usurpation–the subject of Federalist 47-51–often involves top-down hyper-partisanship. As Publius (Madison in this case) seeks the means to maintain the separation of executive, legislative, and judicial powers, he reflects upon the ways that partisanship makes this more difficult.

The constitution of Pennsylvania had provided for a periodic review of the actions of its three branches by a “council of censors” to help prevent usurpations by one branch or another or by the state government altogether. Unfortunately, Publius observed (in Federalist 50), this council had been “split into two fixed and violent parties.” How did he know?

In all questions, however unimportant in themselves, or unconnected with each other, the same names stand invariably contrasted on the opposite columns. . . . When men exercise their reason coolly and freely on a variety of distinct questions, they inevitably fall into different opinions on some of them. When they are governed by a common passion, their opinions, if they are so to be called, will be the same.

The council of censors provided no real check on the government since it judged matters by party, rather than by constitutional principle, excusing the misdeeds of political friends and imagining misdeeds by political enemies. This certainly sounds all too familiar—as does the inevitable party-line votes on matters great and small. Note, however, that Publius’s alternative to hyper-partisanship is different from Pew’s: cool, free (and fallible) reason, not inconsistency, indifference, or sanctimonious moderation.

Despite the trouble caused by parties in government—and, in this context, the particular difficulty it creates for protecting the constitutional division of powers—here too Publius cannot really wish them away: “an extinction of parties necessarily implies either a universal alarm for the public safety, or an absolute extinction of liberty.” An existential threat to liberty or its absence altogether: these are the only circumstances in which one can expect parties to disappear.

We ought to be reasonable, then, but (too many of us) won’t be unless we can’t help it. What next? Give up entirely? Publius’s moral critique of partisanship—like his similar critiques of faction and usurpation—suggests otherwise. There ought to be Democratic Congressional leaders willing to confront the abuses of the Obama Administration, even if we’re not surprised that there aren’t.

As we’ll see in essays to come, Publius suggests that there is still hope for republican government, even if there are no easy answers. Seeing unreasoning hyper-partisanship for what it is—and giving up hope in an equally unreasoning and no less dangerous artificial homogenization—may be the first step toward a more pleasant political family meal.

David Corbin is a Professor of Politics and Matthew Parks an Assistant Professor of Politics at The King’s College, New York City. They are co-authors of “Keeping Our Republic: Principles for a Political Reformation” (2011). You can follow their work on Twitter or Facebook.