American Elephants

We’re Supposed to Argue and Fight: We Have Different Principles. by The Elephant's Child

Bruce Thornton has written an essay for the Hoover Institution “In Praise of Polarization.” Certainly complaints about the “polarization” of the electorate are to be heard everywhere. Many decry President Obama’s unfulfilled promise to bring us all together and lessen the dissent.

Norman Ornstein and Thomas E.Mann recently wrote “The partisan and ideological polarization from which we now suffer comes at a time when critical problems cry out for resolution, making for a particularly toxic mix.” The “consensus is clear,” says Thornton, “Problems need solving, but political polarization has paralyzed the government.”

This reflects a misunderstanding of what the founders intended, and a misunderstanding of humanity. Why would anyone think that we are suddenly all going to get along?

Such complaints about polarization reflect a misunderstanding of our political order. What we decry as polarization exists not because politicians are party hacks, but because citizens passionately disagree about fundamental, and sometimes irreconcilable, principles and beliefs that most public policies necessarily reflect. Nor are these conflicts always amenable to compromise, which requires at some level a betrayal or weakening of those beliefs. The conflict over slavery is the obvious example, a dispute that defied every legislative and political “compromise” and ultimately had to be resolved by a bloody civil war. The Civil Rights movement and the disagreement over the war in Vietnam are other examples of “polarization” much more divisive and violent than anything we are experiencing today. In fact, such fierce disputes are as prevalent in American political history as bipartisan compromise. Both are in the DNA of our political system.

I think that the proliferation of words and ideas that flow at us from the radio, TV, the internet, Facebook, Twitter, our iPads and soon our Dick Tracy wrist computers or implants. The Founders had some broadsheets and newspapers, but a Town Crier doesn’t convey the mix with which we are confronted.  I don’t think our brains are any better than theirs were — often I am sure that we have lost a great deal — but we are probably better at multitasking (I have a radio on as I type and read ) but what I gain in quantity, I certainly lack in clarity. At least, I imagine the Founders lives as less cluttered.

All that polarization that everyone worries about so much, is the way it is supposed to be. We have strong principles that aren’t really subject to bipartisan compromise. That’s why they provided us with an electoral process through which we could battle it out until the next time. That’s why we have these conventions —to lay out our ideas and unite over our agreements.

Do read the whole thing, it’s worth your time.


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