As we approach this dark Shakespearean winter of our political discontent with no sun of York on the horizon to rescue us, it would be good to place the political turmoil of the times into some kind of context to determine if things are as serious as they appear. Need we worry about the health of our political system? Yes.
Our democracy is fragile. No institutional democratic arrangement can long withstand mendacious leaders and an uninvolved, complicit or complacent citizenry. We mistake rudeness for strength; flattery replaces wise counsel; passion and prejudice supplant reason and fact; strength of opinion supersedes the quality of the opinion. Character assassination, vituperation, vitriol, vilification and venom mark our politics. Enough is enough.
Our system of governance requires acceptance of the necessity of compromise, forbearance and civility of discourse for government to function. The founders warned of the excess of faction and division whereby extreme partisanship would bring government to a halt.
In Federalist 10, Madison defines a faction as "a number of citizens. . .who are united and actuated by some common impulse of passion, adverse to the rights of other citizens, or to the permanent and aggregate interests of the community." The concern was that partisan loyalties would supplant national unity and concern for the common good. The Founders were concerned that the new system of government could not withstand the assault of factions. America is beset with warring factions today that paralyze the pursuit of the common good.
Because we are obsessed with partisan division and see compromise as evil, we are incapable of acting to promote the general welfare and the general welfare is in much need of action. Dealing with the effects of climate change cannot wait. Coming to grips with the health care crisis in this country demands immediate attention. Addressing rampant gun violence requires quick action. Immigration incites ethnocentrism. Racism is still a pestilence on the nation. National security challenges are not going to just disappear. But we are consumed by an internecine brawl for partisan supremacy. We treat those that disagree with us as treacherous traitors. We call our opponents “savages” and “enemies of the people.” Has the compass of American citizens become ossified when it comes to demanding a just and responsive government to all and for all and by all? I hope not.
We are fast reaching once again in our history what Lincoln described as a house divided — not today over slavery but over the rule of law and the definition of America. “Rage and frenzy will pull down more in half an hour than prudence, deliberation, and foresight can build up in a hundred years.”—Edmund Burke
Our institutions and processes of government have evolved over time. They exist to contain the excesses of partisanship within institutional controls that deserve reverence. Chief among these is the rule of law which holds no one is above the law, the law should be just and fairly administered and public officials should be accountable.
Certainly, hardy debate and robust disagreement are at the core of the democratic process. But to be productive such debate must be governed by the rules of decorum and civility and based on issues supported by reasoning and data; not by invective and diatribe.
“Men are qualified for civil liberty in exact proportion to their disposition to put moral chains upon their own appetites…in proportion as they are more disposed to listen to the counsels of the wise and good, in preference to the flattery of knaves. Society cannot exist, unless a controlling power upon will and appetite be placed somewhere; and the less of it there is within, the more there must be without. It is ordained in the eternal constitution of things, that men of intemperate minds cannot be free. Their passions forge their fetters.” ― Edmund Burke
Madison said that a major check on dysfunctional government was the people. It is time we take back our political system and demand accountability, civility and responsiveness to the needs of the people. It is time we check the passions of partisanship. This is not a “reality show” but a deadly serious disintegration of our political process that demands action.
Dr. John W. Ray teaches classes in political science and philosophy at Montana Tech. The views expressed are his own and do not necessarily reflect the views of Montana Tech.
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