American politics have become dangerously adversarial. Whatever the cause or party, the other side is increasingly designated as “the enemy”, with imputed evil intent against our country and everything we hold dear. Only the total defeat of this enemy can be a satisfactory outcome.
This is wrong for two reasons: first, because such an attitude is unrealistic. Second, because it is un-American.
Our true enemy is not the “other side”. It is ideology, a mental and emotional framework which divides the world into “good” and “evil” parts.
Ideology is a man-made worldview which reduces life to a simple formula. It divides the world into two classes: Us, who know the truth, and Them, who are too dim witted to understand or too corrupt to agree. We are on a mission to perfect the world. They are the obstacle and/or the enemy.
The appeal of ideology is emotional security, born of the certainty of one’s own righteousness and moral superiority. But the end goal of the ideologue is always power, supported by the blind loyalty of one’s followers and the assumed greatness of the cause.
The United States were born out of the rejection of the reigning ideologies of the 17th and 18th centuries: “divine-right” monarchy, enforced religious uniformity, superiority of one’s nationality or race. By contrast the United States foundational documents enshrined individual liberty and pluralism. The First Amendment forbade the imposition by the state of religious conformity. The Second gave the citizens the arms to oppose any such effort, be it religious or political. Many other constitutional clauses were directed towards the same end. By both structure and temperament America is so built that its citizens cannot be made to agree.
In a system designed to prevent the imposition of uniformity from above the only orderly recourse is voluntary consensus, and if need be compromise, between free individuals and the groups they choose to form. This has been “the American Way” from the Revolution on, and historical experience supports the validity and strength of this model. But free persons are still imperfect, as the Founding Fathers well knew. The temptations of power – and tyranny – are never far from the political discourse.
The system spectacularly failed in 1860, when radical minorities in North and South, unwilling to compromise, drove the nation to secession and war. The resulting conflict saved the Union and freed the slaves, but at a high price: 600,000 dead (2% of the population); a century of bitter division between winners and vanquished; three generations passing before the ex-slaves finally received their civil rights.
By contrast, the deep and angry political divisions of the Great Depression years were overcome in the common drive to victory in WW II. The “Greatest Generation” did not achieve their title through courage, ingenuity and sacrifice alone. They also had the willingness to recognize that victory against the outside enemies required internal unity.
Today we are faced with a similar choice. While our economy and national spirit weaken, we engage in ideological warfare against our fellow Americans, demanding obedience to our partisan principles while declaring theirs to be heresy. The sorry state of our federal government is a witness to our divisions – though by far not the only one.
In the end none of us profit from this weakening of our ideals. Our enemies – be they authoritarian states or terrorists – can only rejoice at our bickering, while reaping the benefits of our weakness and indecision.
The remedy is not in the implementation of some simplistic and abstract concept – be it liberalism, conservatism, or “small government” – while demanding blind submission from others. It is instead a determined pursuit of the national interest, meaning the interest of the entire American community. We might have differences and retain some of them, but on the fundamentals – economic vitality, freedom, opportunity and fairness, internal and external security – we can and must find agreement, and from there work together.
The time for decision is now: civil strife and its dire consequences, or national cooperation and the continuation of the American Destiny.