Reflections on Why We Fight

Posted on Categories Political Processes & Rhetoric

Let’s fight about why we fight!

Or, better yet, let’s continue the intriguing discussion begun by Professor Fallone about the nature of our political divisions. There are some interesting observations in the readings he suggests (I’ve seen only the Lakoff book), but they also raise some interesting (at least to me) observations and questions.

I have not read Gary Will’s book, but I have, like many of the readers of this blog, thought and wrote about issues of federalism and the proper role of the state.  I agree with the idea that there is a “myth” about these matters, if he means to use the term in its true meaning as an explanatory narrative, rather than in its popular corruption as “false.”

That narrative reflects a rather serious body of thought that is not limited to the political right or to any particular view of the founding. The idea that the “local and voluntary” (the term “amatuer” is pejorative and trivializes the debate) can be preferable to the “centralized and mandatory” is an important aspect of Catholic social teaching (expressed in the notion of subsidiarity) and of the Calvinist notion of sphere sovereignty. Toqueville, an outsider, saw American associationalism as a valuable antidote to the potential for democracy to consume itself.

Of course, none of these perspectives argue that a central government has no role to play and part of the difficulty with using historically successful arguments for central government is that they do not imply that expanded government is always good. The need for expanded government to, for example, start a central bank or facilitate interstate commerce, means that calls for additional expansion of central government  are actually or even presumptively meritorious.

This suggests two observations about our current political divide. 

First, the arguments that we have about whether to shrink or grow the federal government (or government in general) is around a baseline that Hamilton and Madison or Lincoln could not have imagined. Indeed, modern conservatives argue that it is not the anti-Federalist vision we have abandoned, but the vision of the Federalists themselves.

Second, modern conservative have hardly argued for the abandonment of centralized government (Bush 43 was rather fond of it to the consternation of many of us) and have not — over the past 30 years — rolled back the role of the state. They have done no more than slow its growth.

The latter observation makes me wonder about the need for the Republican Party to reject vigilantism and secessionist movements. I am genuinely puzzled about how one could conclude that such things are even implicitly supported by mainstream conservatives.  I know that President George W. Bush has criticized the Minuteman who look for illegal border crossings as “vigilante-like” (therefore, I suppose, rejecting them) and I know that some Republicans (e.g., the relatively liberal Gov. Schwarzenegger) have expressed support for them. But, regardless of how one feels about immigration and border control (about which the GOP is divided), are they really vigilantes? My understanding is that they report violations of the law but do not attempt to enforce it. I can see the potential for trouble, but has there been any? Maybe I am underinformed on this.

As for secession, I know that Governor Perry of Texas made some suggestive remarks recently and the state legislature is considering the assertion of its sovereignty under the Tenth Amendment (not really a call for secession), but Texas is just like that, no? Always has been; always will be. (The Vermont secessionist movement has struck me as a movement from the left with no support.)

For another angle on some of the issues suggested by Will (and Lakoff), I would suggest Paul Rahe’s new book  Soft Despotism, Democracy’s Drift: Montesquieu, Rousseau, Tocqueville, and the Modern Prospect.

As for partisanship, I haven’t read the Brownstein book but much of what Ed reports seems sensible. I can’t agree, however, that Obama has begun with demonstrable bi-partisanship. I agree that he hasn’t satisfied all the wishes of his party’s left, but the handling of the stimulus bill was hardly bi-partisan and, I can tell you, that those of on the starboard are staggered by the actual and proposed expansion of the state over the past six months.

Personally, I would not trace the rise of partisanship to the last twenty years but to the last forty or so. The Sixties threw up a great deal of social conflict and LBJ  roiled it through his ambition about what government could accomplish. He fought a war he didn’t want and embarked on a domestic attempt to remake society, drawing fire from both the right and the left. Politicians have both exploited these divisions and become compelled to take one side or the other. For an interesting take on how this divided and limited the Democratic Party, see  Mark Stricherz’ Why the Democrats are Blue: Secular Liberalism and the Decline of the People’s Party.

I have read substantial parts of the Lakoff book and Lakoff, of course, has gone on to a cottage industry in telling liberals how he thinks they ought to speak to the American people. His thesis is, of course, phrased in ways a liberal would love. I fail to see, for example, that “obedience to authority” is at the heart of conservatism. Indeed, a huge part of the conservative view is to opposition to the extension of certain forms of authority; particularly that authority (i.e., the state) which asserts its will by compulsion.

But still I think he has something of a point. His thesis reminds me of Michael Barone’s characterization of Democrats and Republicans as, respectively, the Mommy Party and the Daddy Party. A more foundational way of viewing the divide is suggested in Thomas Sowell’s A Conflict of Visions: Ideological Origins of Political Struggles. For Sowell, the difference is not in our minds but in our anthropologies. One side has an “unconstrained” and ambitious view of human nature, emphasizing humanity’s  potential and perfectibility, and the possibility of rational planning for social solutions. The other side’s perspective on the nature of persons is more constrained , tending to see humanity as  unchanged, limited and dependent on evolved social processes. 

This suggests that we will continue to fight and probably should. What we disagree about matters. But it also counsels that we remember what we are not fighting about. We disagree less about what is good than we do about how to achieve it.

It also suggests that our differences are matters of emphasis and degree. Improvement is possible. Improvement is difficult. Life is paradoxical and we – both right and left – have something to say to one another.

But now, to paraphase Joe Swanson, I’m giving myself diabetes.

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