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.