Recently, right-wing radio host Dennis Prager came under fire for a column he wrote in which he told conservatives “that we are in a civil war, and that [Donald] Trump, with all his flaws, is our general.” In a new response to his critics, Prager doubled down on his intense rhetoric.
“I never thought that the word ‘war’ must always include violence,” Prager said. “The word is frequently used in nonviolent contexts: the war against cancer, the war between the sexes, the war against tobacco, the Cold War, and myriad other nonviolent wars.”
His rhetoric is wrong, but perhaps not in the way Prager’s critics have so far articulated. In this latest column and elsewhere through his career, Prager has unwittingly embraced progressive rhetoric by using this war metaphor. Early American progressives, such as Oliver Wendell Holmes and Theodore Roosevelt, believed the nation needed to harness the moral urgency of warfare and direct it towards solving domestic social problems via extensive programs and an administrative state. It’s a form of political manipulation to stampede people into action.
In a 1910, William James, an influential progressive philosopher, wrote about this aim with great clarity in an essay titled “The Moral Equivalent of War.”
It is only a question of blowing on the spark until the whole population gets incandescent, and on the ruins of the old morals of military honor, a stable system of morals of civic honor builds itself up. What the whole community comes to believe in grasps the individual as in a vise. The war-function has grasped us so far; but the constructive interests may some day seem no less imperative, and impose on the individual a hardly lighter burden.
These progressives essentially wanted to consume the entire life of the individual in pursuit of a collectivist moral utopia. Contemporary leftists embrace the tribal, warlike language of identity politics for the same exact reason.
We Need Goodwill, Not War
Prager’s comparison of his concept of a “Second Civil War” to the various “wars” on social ills the progressives “declared” is actually quite apt. Like them, Prager is trying to give our politics the moral urgency of warfare. His purpose, plainly stated, is to whip up the passions of the people, because, Prager argued, “the primary role of a conservative [is] to vanquish leftism” and “If the left wins, America loses. And if America loses, evil will engulf the world.”
Leftists, especially those who explicitly practice identity politics, certainly display certain troubling totalitarian tendencies in their politics. The Left uses both politically correct speech codes and, sometimes, even outright political violence to silence conservative voices on college campuses and in other public forums. But the way to fight back is not to “declare war” and march against them, compromising our moral values to “win a battle.”
Citizenship, as Aristotle might remind us, is a type of friendship. Especially in the American regime, people of goodwill are meant to be able to disagree on the best, most prudent policy objectives. Believe it or not, leftists are nothing like ISIS, Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union, or other foreign enemies that want to violently destroy the American regime. Leftist ideology is absolutely in conflict with the principles of the American Founding, and many of the policies they pursue are inimical both to stable society and good government. But they are not evil, nor do they need to be “destroyed.”
The Divide Between Right and Left Is as Old as America
Since the days of Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson, American politics have been divided between the Right and the Left. Just as conservatives can trace our intellectual heritage back to the Federalist Party and the Tertium Quids, the Left can trace its intellectual heritage back to Jefferson and other Democratic-Republicans who strongly sympathized with the French Revolution. Like it or not, this division is homegrown, and deeply rooted in our history.
In his Farewell Address, George Washington warned both his contemporaries and future generations against making too much of the conflict between the Left and the Right.
The alternate domination of one faction over another, sharpened by the spirit of revenge… is itself a frightful despotism. But this leads at length to a more formal and permanent despotism. The disorders and miseries which result gradually incline the minds of men to seek security and repose in the absolute power of an individual; and sooner or later the chief of some prevailing faction, more able or more fortunate than his competitors, turns this disposition to the purposes of his own elevation, on the ruins of public liberty.
The identity politics and factionalism of the Left and the Right have brought both to a kind of “the-ends-justify-the-means” morality. Many leftists are so terrified of the Right they feel the need to justify campus mobs and pretend the country’s president is somehow illegitimate. On the Right, so many are so terrified of the Left they declare, like Prager in his new column, that “Trump’s character is less morally significant than defeating the left.”
There’s an option we can take that doesn’t mean we descend into faction or identity politics. Washington laid it out in his Farewell Address, too: “[As] citizens, by birth or choice, of a common country, that country has a right to concentrate your affections,” he said. “The name of American, which belongs to you in your national capacity, must always exalt the just pride of patriotism more than any appellation derived from local discriminations.”
Overdramatic Talk Is Bad for the Country
Statesmanship isn’t just a kind of generalship. It requires other skills, such as rhetorical talents and the abilities of persuasion. Ronald Reagan accomplished so much not because he took a scorched-earth approach towards dealing with left-wing critics, but because he was the “Great Communicator.” Abraham Lincoln did have to fight an actual war with secessionists, but his hope was always to talk sense into his countrymen — and, as a result, kept Delaware, Maryland, Kentucky, Missouri, Tennessee, and Kansas in the Union.
But perhaps the finest example of rhetorical statesmanship overcoming the “moral equivalence of war” furthered by faction and identity politics comes from Washington’s own life. After the Revolutionary War, the country was in shambles. The economy was ruined, debt was through the roof, and Congress could not afford to compensate the army that won this nation independence. A group of conspirators in the Continental Army secretly plotted to storm Philadelphia, overthrow Congress, and implement a new regime.
When Washington caught wind of this plot, he moved swiftly to counteract it. He assembled all of his officers together near his headquarters in Newburgh, New York. There, he gave a speech known as the Newburgh Address, and dissuaded any further action.
“[L]et me conjure you, in the name of our common Country, as you value your own sacred honor, as your respect the rights of humanity, and as you regard the Military and National character of America,” Washington said to his men, “to express your utmost horror and detestation of the Man who wishes, under any specious pretences, to overturn the liberties of our Country, and who wickedly attempts to open the flood Gates of Civil discord, and deluge our rising Empire in Blood.”
After listening to his speech, the officers abandoned their plan, and many of them — including, perhaps most notably, Alexander Hamilton — later went on to peacefully reform American government at the Constitutional Convention in 1787.
Dennis Prager could learn a lesson or two from George Washington. It’s time to beat our rhetorical swords into ploughshares. Left and Right both should stop antagonizing each other for antagonism’s sake, and instead get to work on solving our country’s problems together.