Saturday, September 06, 2008

The Fraying of America: An Explanation

I know this sounds obsessive, but I am still thinking about the flood of invective recently aimed at Sarah Palin and members of her family in the left-leaning parts of the internet and mainstream media. It was rather startling to those of us who were not taking part in it.

Public discourse in this country, whether it involves an election campaign or a Supreme Court nomination, is often a festival of invective, character-assassination, and incivility. I am tempted to try to accumulate more examples but the problem with that is, since this is a broad cultural phenomenon and we are all part of it, the natural reaction will often be something like, "well that one's not a good example, because those particular bastards had it coming."

But surely examples are not necessary. American leftists must know in their hearts that for at least six or seven years their attitude toward GeorgeW. Bush has been one of more or less pure hatred. And those on the other side can remember the eight years of Clinton-hating that preceded that.

The neo-Tocquevillian idea that participating in the modern democratic state is something that draws us together into a national conversation about common goals and aspirations is turning into an ugly joke. What I see, more and more, is mutual hatred and suspicion.

Admittedly, there have been times when the level of discourse was in some ways much worse than it is now. It was no doubt worse on the day in 1855 when Congressman Preston Brooks of South Carolina beat Senator Charles Sumner senseless on the floor of the Senate with a walking stick. There is another way in which those days were different, aside from being even more angry and hateful: in those days, there was an obvious reason for that anger and hatred. The single issue of slavery set citizens against each other in conflict that admitted little or no compromise.

Today, there is no such single issue. There is a reason, though, and it is one that in a subtle way may be worse that the one that underlay the Brooks-Sumner sort of conflict.

Today, it is the system itself that sets people against each other. When we participate in any political process nowadays, we always face opponents who seek to impose some coercive policy or other on us. They may want to to spread American-style democracy by deadly means around the world, in your name and at your expense. They may want to provide free health care for all, a policy that is not by any means free. They may want the police to scare you out of your dependence on a variety of substances, from heroin to trans-fats and beyond. The policies I have in mind vary widely, but they all have one thing in common. In every case someone seeks to to achieve some goal that is their and not yours -- whether that goal is to line their own pockets or achieve their personal vision of the good society -- at your expense. There is no way to see this as a positive-sum situation. One man's gain is another's loss. If they win, it is because you lose, and vice versa.

We have reversed von Clausewitiz: Politics is civil war carried out by other means. The really sad truth is that our mutual hatred and suspicion are well grounded and more or less rational.

We, the rest of us, the world minus you, really are your enemies. Every time there is an election, we are trying to thwart your interests and ideals by coercive means and force others on you instead. Aside from the handful of individual rights codified in the Bill of Rights, there really are no limits to what the rest of us are willing to do to you, and will do, if we get the chance.

Of course, alternative systems are conceivable. I can conceive of at least two: 1) We might let the nation state disintegrate into smaller and smaller units, until any given state is inhabited only by people whose interests and standards of value are perfectly harmonious. In many cases, the number of these fellow citizens will be exactly one. This I admit is not very practical. But there is an alternative. 2) We could limit the powers of government to only doing things that are genuinely in everyone's interests, such as maintaining public order and providing certain other "public goods."

I realize we are not going to do either of these things any time soon. But then I do not anticipate the return of civility any sooner than that.
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