A Civil War, or an Uncivil Contest?

We must disagree with each other as opponents, not as enemies; we must look beyond our differences to see on all parts a genuine, if at times misguided, concern for our country and our society.

Our polarized political discourse in the United States continues to intensify, particularly as midterm elections approach.  These races will invariably become a referendum on the Biden presidency, and our polarized electorate has fallen victim to its ever increasing passions.  Regrettably, our talks about politics–be they at a kitchen table, on broadcast television, or on social media–have grown toxic, and that has profound implications for our society.  Indeed, as our two political parties damage each other and themselves in a desperate attempt to determine which will have a legislative majority come January, various components of American life will continue to deteriorate.  Liberals and conservatives, Democrats and Republicans–all have contributed to this state of affairs, and the effects extend far beyond the political arena.  With friendships fracturing over civic arguments and family members refusing to speak to each other, it has all become intensely personal.  This is precisely the problem.

Over two and a half centuries ago, John Adams made famous an idea that he readily attributed to the English political philosopher James Harrington–”a government of laws, not of men.”  If we were to generalize laws to mean a political process or government institutions, we might begin to arrive at the true spirit of what Adams and all of his founding colleagues agreed upon as essential to American government: eliminating the traditional emphasis on the person who occupies an office.  The framers of our Constitution–and certainly Harrington during the previous century–understood from direct experience the dangers arising from investing individual persons with political power.  Aristocrats and monarchs had for centuries proven a tendency for human beings to abuse power vested in them.

While the political left recoils in horror at former President Donald Trump’s alleged insistence of personal loyalty from his advisors and cabinet members, and while they decry the success of political candidates who identify with Mr. Trump and align themselves with him, they overlook perhaps more subtle but similar tendencies within themselves.  Both parties nominate presidential candidates to become the personal embodiment of their platforms.  Most Americans have come to see these candidates as a personification of things they support or ideas they oppose.  The most powerful office in the land–as well as the most symbolic–has become heavily personalized.

We need, however, to peel apart the concepts of symbolism, personification, and personalization.  They have similarities, but their distinctions enable us to understand that the presidency represents the power of our electorate channeled through an executive office; the individual holding office represents a political current that has brought him or her to that office; and, critically, the person who acts in the capacity of president derives power and authority not from who he or she is, but from the democratic process that puts all elected leaders in office.

Personalization, then, becomes a force inimical to democracy, and we see this on all levels of government.  Partisan news outlets and social media have created fame and infamy for legislators–and even candidates for legislatures–on the federal and state levels based on an insidious two-step process to which both opposing ideologies contribute.  First, an emerging political figure appears in the media, often presented favorably by sympathetic reporters and commentators; then, the opposite political camp vilifies him or her.  This process can polarize even moderate politicians, since centrists have come to appear aloof from the partisan frameworks that now determine who wields power.

In an editorial last year in the Minnesota Post, columnist Eric Black draws attention to the idea of a loyal opposition, a concept drawn from the modern British parliamentary system in which the minority party allows the majority party to govern, largely though not entirely without interference.  The minority puts up symbolic resistance in order to put objections on record and to persuade voters to make them the majority at the next voting opportunity.  

All of this recalls a seemingly ancient era, when conservative President Ronald Reagan considered liberal House Speaker Tip O’Neill a friend (at least after working hours, as Reagan once facetiously wrote).  These two figures fiercely opposed each other at times as part of the political process, but they also cooperated as part of that same process.  As a result, that very process moved forward.  Irrespective of our opinions about how these leaders governed our country at that time, we had an electorate that insisted upon a functional government, and we had a mass-media culture that had not yet devolved to the level of pandering to its consumers’ basest emotions and instincts.

And here we arrive at an essential manner of understanding a functional democracy: as a process, not as the war that commentators on both sides of the political divide have declared.  In a weekend tennis match, even the best of friends can compete intensely against each other in spirited competition.  In this context, they are opponents, not enemies.  Similarly, a healthy democracy can involve robust opposition and conflict while allowing for compromise and progress, all while opposing political entities compete to assert to American citizens the merits of their platforms.  Instead, today we hear rhetoric of civil war, and this comes courtesy of our being largely ignorant of a civil contest.

Perhaps we voters can set a meaningful example by rejecting the attempts of pundits and politicians to dehumanize their detractors.  The self-righteousness of the left and the contempt of the right contain venoms that only harm our civic structure and our personal relationships.  By all means, we should all have passionate opinions, and we should put them forth toward each other in vigorous debate.  But a healthy, meaningful debate requires both speaking and listening, both disagreement and respect, both fierce determination and reasoned consideration.  And we must disagree with each other as opponents, not as enemies; we must look beyond our differences to see on all parts a genuine, if at times misguided, concern for our country and our society.

We Americans owe ourselves a civic unity that transcends differences of opinion, as well as a government that synthesizes action from competing priorities.  If our most powerful media outlets refuse to promote this, we need to remind ourselves and each other–even if we have powerful disagreements about how to achieve our aims.

16 thoughts on “A Civil War, or an Uncivil Contest?

    1. I am sorry to hear this. As far as I know, I have not lost any friends over our differences. I lament that others have. I only hope this trend will pass, but divisiveness sells, and lots of people are buying. This happens, as I wrote, across the spectrum, and it pains me to see it.

  1. Golden line: “But a healthy, meaningful debate requires both speaking and listening, both disagreement and respect, both fierce determination and reasoned consideration.” If I check myself, I’m guilty of being silent. On the one hand, it’s self-preservation. On the other hand: it’s contributing to cultural immolation.

    1. Sometimes silence is the best answer. Some of the commentary does not merit response. I merely pray that constructive assertiveness can take ground back from the aggressive and abusive rhetoric that has come to prevail.

  2. When our lives and livelihoods are at stake these debates ironically require more understanding, more middle of the venn diagram work. For survival. However, this takes seeing beyond the visible. A capacity for imagination and patience to believe in the possibilities–even if we won’t witness the softening of the heart. Thanks for this analysis.

    1. And thank you for this thoughtful remark. I am merely disappointed that as a society we have come to this state, and I pray that we can all find our way back.

  3. Paul, I love your wise words of wisdom – opponents, not enemies. There is so much truth here
    – it deserves a spot in newspapers! You truly have a remarkable perspective and remind us of the dangers in the toxicity of politics.

  4. Interesting technique of de-personification of politics really emphasizes your point, eg. debating opinions with opponents (which makes me think of pieces on a chess board) vs. enemies (with faces and values). Opponents, to makes me think of a healthy competition; whereas enemies makes me think of a long-standing feud among people. Great use of words to reinforce your message.

  5. Well put, as always, Paul. Thank you for giving words to the impossible to pinpoint. I love how you wrapped your points up with this, “Similarly, a healthy democracy can involve robust opposition and conflict while allowing for compromise and progress, all while opposing political entities compete to assert to American citizens the merits of their platforms.” We have lost compromise and progress, they are seen as weakness. It has been happening for a number of years but my optimistic soul believes things will improve! In the meantime, I cling to the fact that people I admire and trust still use their voices to calmly bring focus to the mayhem. Thank you for being one of those people!

  6. It happens here too. Most politicians all over the world are the same. I wonder how many people are influenced by their words and change sides? In our personal relationships, I try to accept people as they are, and agree to disagree when we think differently. Thank you.

  7. You remind us that even the greatest gifts – freedom, choice, democracy – can tarnish if not well-kept; they were never meant to be misused as weapons against one another. Polarization is the political trend of the day. Must it be so? You nailed so much with that one word, “dehumanization”. Closely linked to it is demoralization. It is time to reclaim our humanity and the better parts of ourselves – “the better angels of our nature,” as Lincoln said. He also said “We must not be enemies” (all this, before the war). As you put it so succinctly, pertaining to political outcries – I’m taking the liberty to say both parties – there needs to be realization that individuals overlook “perhaps more subtle but similar tendencies within themselves.” -BAM. Like the old adage, when you point your (blaming) finger, three are pointing back at you. I steer clear of political discussions and their toxicity as much as possible… sometimes thinking “we must not be animals” and other times convinced that animals are wiser than we. In the end, people are infinitely more valuable than agendas. And so we use the pen, far mightier than the sword, to touch one another’s hearts with that message…thank you for your words, Paul, and this desperately-needed lens of wisdom to bring things into such clear, honest focus.

    1. Fran, as always, I am deeply moved by your ability to understand not only my larger points but so many of the nuances that I know go with them. I can also clearly see that you are as troubled by our discursive climate as I am. Our nation will prevail, but we will sustain significant damage in the process. Thank you for everything you express here.

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