I often wonder why it is that some people disagree with my political views. My logic is unassailable, the breadth of my historical knowledge is unmatched, my moral foundation cannot be questioned, and I am far more charming and better looking than my opponents. Why don’t they agree with me?
My summer project was to seek an answer to this mystery. I chose three books to read that I thought would provide some insight into the ideological fault lines that seem to run through every facet of our daily lives (and indeed seem to run through this very blog). What follows are the lessons that I have learned. I suppose other readers might draw different lessons. My recommendation is that you read these books for yourself.
My first goal was to understand why the “big government” charge persistently leveled by Republicans against the Obama Administration seems to resonate with some people, but not with others. Some clues are provided by Gary Wills in A Necessary Evil: A History of American Distrust of Government. Writing some ten years ago, Wills documents the origin and growth of the arguments against “big government” and in favor of individualism and local control over the course of our nation’s history. Over time, he argues, these disparate strands of thought have coalesced into a more general anti-government creed. The specifics of this creed – the belief that amateur, local and voluntary conduct creates greater public well being than professional, centralized, and mandatory regulation — resembles the political philosophy currently espoused by many of President Obama’s critics.
Wills locates the roots of the anti-government attitude in some of the myths surrounding our nation’s founding (i.e., that the Revolutionary War was won by amateur minutemen rather than by the more regimented Continental Army). He also makes the observation that anti-Federalist rhetoric on the meaning of the Constitution is often accepted unquestioningly as an accurate statement of the meaning of the text. In addition, Wills identifies several disparate strands of American thought that combine with both myth and an ambiguous constitutional text in order to form a more comprehensive anti-government philosophy. He identifies these strands as being comprised of nullifiers, seceders, insurrectionists, vigilantes, withdrawers and disobeyers. Wills points to examples of these types on both the left and right side of the political spectrum (including, for example, Vietnam-era student protesters).
While all of these aspects of anti-government ideology have deep roots in our nation’s history, they are nonetheless inconsistent with what I consider to be the two central characteristics of modern America. A nation governed upon these principles cannot enjoy either a truly nationwide market in goods and services or a global military presence. Both of these characteristics are dependent upon the existence of a centralized and effective federal government. In fact, this was the main premise of the Federalist Papers. A small federal government, or one that is purposefully rendered inefficient or weak, can be attained only at the expense of these characteristics.
Within recent memory, many Republican leaders embraced the ideal of a centralized, specialized and efficient federal government as necessary in the realm of foreign affairs in order to confront a) the menace of Communism and b) the threat of extremist Islam. Is it any surprise that the voting public would go one step further and accept the idea that a centralized, specialized and efficient federal government is also useful to confront the potential collapse of the nation’s economic system, or the dysfunctional health care system?
In fact, the anti-government posture is a dubious choice as the defining ethos of the Republican Party in the Age of Obama. In every circumstance, from the anti-Federalists, to the Confederacy, to the Vietnam protesters, the anti-government position has ultimately lost the debate for the hearts and minds of the broader population. This is not a roadmap for electoral success. Moreover, when the Republican Party does succeed in recapturing control of the federal government (as it inevitably will), the Party may find it difficult to govern whilst riding the tiger of anti-government fervor that it currently embraces.
Future electoral success may require the leadership of the Republican Party to confront and reject at least one segment of this anti-government ideology: explicitly repudiating vigilantism in favor of strict law and order, for example, or repudiating any and all secessionist movements as unconstitutional. I am not suggesting that Republican leaders explicitly support either of these two branches of anti-government activity, but merely that they have failed to definitively distance the ideology of the Party from them. Only by selectively pruning the underpinnings of the overall anti-government movement will the Republican Party be able to grow back to its former levels of support.
I would like to believe that the ideological chasm between the two major political parties can be bridged. World War II, the Communist threat, and the Civil Rights movement managed to unite conservative Democrats and liberal Republicans for decades, and led to many bi-partisan legislative achievements during the Sixties and Seventies. Yet over the last 20 years our nation has become increasingly divided along partisan lines. What happened? The easy answer is that conservative Democrats and liberal Republicans don’t get elected in meaningful numbers anymore.
Ronald Brownstein tells the story in a book that has obviously spent some time on Barack Obama’s nightstand: The Second Civil War: How Extreme Partisanship Has Paralyzed Washington and Polarized America. To those who view partisanship as the natural state of American politics, Brownstein offers a rebuke. We did not get where we are by accident.
“Good government” reforms, such as the elimination of the congressional seniority system, actually served to diminish the influence of moderates by directing committee assignments to loyalists. The public also began to hunger for more sharply defined differences between the political parties. After a “stay the course” consensus in Congress that persisted through the middle of the Twentieth Century — maintaining but not radically expanding the federal bureaucracy instituted by the New Deal — voters lost the ability to differentiate between Democrats and Republicans. This restlessness played to the advantage of candidates that drew stark ideological distinctions with their opponents. Finally, the eroding legacy of the Civil War had an impact, as a new generation of Southern voters chose to identify with the Republican Party rather than to follow their parents in rejecting the Party of Lincoln in favor of conservative Democrats.
Today, an elected representative who consistently toes a partisan party line is guaranteed important committee chairmanships, the lack of a primary opponent (and therefore virtually assured re-election from a gerrymandered district), and a fountain of campaign contributions from outside groups with narrowly defined special interests. In contrast, an elected representative who votes their mind, with the result that their votes cross party lines on more than a modicum of occasions, gets none of these advantages. Is it any wonder that independent thought is in such short supply in Washington?
None of these trends are new, but Brownstein charts their growth and development so clearly that it is impossible to conclude that our nation currently enjoys a healthy democracy. It is therefore encouraging that President Obama began his Administration with a demonstrable effort at bipartisanship. The President has also thus far turned a deaf ear towards the extreme liberal wing of his party, which daily calls on him to use the Democratic majority to ram their priorities through Congress. For example, I am personally disappointed at his cautious expansion of federal support of stem cell research, while the gay and lesbian community is expressing its own increasing frustration with the Administration.
President Obama’s long-term success is tied to his ability to resist satisfying his own supporters. However, lest we be too optimistic, Brownstein’s book documents how previous presidents (for example, Franklin Roosevelt) also began their presidencies with a good faith effort at bi-partisanship only to abandon that policy over time.
The most depressing explanation for why Democrats and Republicans disagree is that it is all in our minds. In his book The Political Mind, George Lakoff argues that human minds are wired differently. Progressives exalt empathy as the highest moral value: caring for others and acting on that care. Conservatives exalt obedience to authority as the highest moral value: personal responsibility and discipline allow us to obey the rules that lead to happiness. It is the battle between competing moral systems, rather than an attention to rational arguments or logical reasoning, that determines the political choices we make. Rather than remain locked in a fight to the death, where we refuse to recognize the legitimacy of our opponents’ definition of morality, Lakoff urges all of us to call a truce and explicitly include both of these moral frameworks as equally valid aspects of the policy debate. If we do so, he believes that the public might choose to pursue empathy as the highest value in some policies while simultaneously choosing to pursue obedience as the highest value in others. Lakoff thinks that the public will eventually recognize the futility in seeking to impose one value system in all cases to the exclusion of the other.
Would this work? I believe that Lakoff underestimates another essential characteristic of the human mind: our competiveness. The will to win is a strong one, even if the cost of victory is our own destruction. Ultimately, we fight because it is in our nature.