Cooling Our Overheated Politics

By | 2017-06-02T18:30:05+00:00 July 9, 2017|
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As the words and images by which we live our public and private lives coarsen and become more violent, as we identify in ways antagonistic to one another, it is surprising only that instances of violence among us are not more frequent. A civil conflict in some ways more destructive of social peace than that of 1861-65 has been building for some time.

Recall that Abraham Lincoln rightly founded his hope for renewed friendship among Americans on the fact that all “prayed to the same God.” But today’s Americans live by mutually abhorrent ethical guides. The armies that raged against one another agreed about right and wrong regarding almost everything. They shared notions of  honor, propriety, as well as manners, that are quaint, if not strange, in our time.

The Civil War’s divide was almost wholly political. By contrast, today we tend to regard people on the other side of political divides as bad or inferior. We loathe one another, and fear that the other side will impose its alien ways on us.

This is because today’s politics encompass far more than politics in America ever had. Modern government’s material powers are awesome enough: Your business, or the one for which you work, must function by rules you can do nothing about. Will you be able to retire? That depends on the government. That goes for any number of regulations, including how much water you can have in your shower, what healthcare you may have at what cost.

Lately, however,  government has also seized moral power over what makes us what we are. When the courts took it upon themselves to reform American society, to banish prayer from schools as well as all manner of “discrimination”; when they discovered that the Constitution protects obscenity and that abortion is the most absolute of all civil rights, they made government into a party to social war and legitimized the currency of inflammatory language. That extends to how our children are educated. Object too hard to its prescriptions, put yourself on the wrong side, and you’re in trouble.

As the people divided into antagonistic groups, politicians have offered them the favors they think they want, not least among which is the denigration of other groups. Political insults are an old, mostly non-violent story. But today’s partisan insults reflect the denial of the other side’s legitimacy as fellow citizens. For a generation, politicians of the Left have accused their political opponents of criminality, including terrorism. This is happening as the U.S government officially maintains (lest it be Islamophobic) that any American is as likely to be a terrorist as any other, and as it has militarized policing but failed to provide personal security. All this portends political violence, both private and public.

As politics became a question of which groups would have whose standards forced upon them on pain of being treated—at least verbally—as criminals against the environment, as “hostage takers,” as racists, and so forth, by such as former Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, President Obama, Hillary Clinton, etc. why should not ordinary bureaucrats use their official powers and officious influence to put down those whom their superiors designate as the enemies of all good things? Why wonder that a hyper-partisan shot up some of these very targets of officious opprobrium while they were playing baseball?

Why should not the other side try to reciprocate, perhaps with interest? That, however is the spiral of social dissolution, of war.

Already, notables walk around with security details, ordinary people carry guns, and America is increasingly wrapped in razor wire. Nor will politicians wean themselves from identity politics. They have learned that, given omni-competent, omnipresent, omnipotent government, it is the secret of success. That is why reducing government’s role as fulfiller or destroyer of lives, as embodiment and arbiter of good and evil, is the only way by which we may do away with politics as competitive throat-shoving, the only chance for preventing our warming civil war from boiling over.

American federalism is the time-tested, homegrown way by which government can become “us” once again, rather than “them.” How much personal anxiety and partisan animus would be eliminated were the federal government, for example, to restrict its role in health care to ensuring a national marketplace? That—not current politicians’ divisive somersaults—is the role America’s Founders envisaged in the Constitution.

This sort of thinking, rather than competitive partisan blaming and increased security measures, offers the only possibility of reducing future instances of partisan violence.

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About the Author:

Angelo Codevilla
Angelo M. Codevilla is a senior fellow of the Claremont Institute, professor emeritus of international relations at Boston University and the author of To Make And Keep Peace, Hoover Institution Press, 2014
  • Brother John the Deplorable

    Absolutely so. Elections matter far too much, especially at the presidential level. We’ve taken it for granted for decades that the outcome of a given case — and thousands of years of human tradition — ride on what Anthony Kennedy had for dinner last night and if it’s giving him heartburn. Everything you hold worthwhile is at stake in every election, because the federal government has made itself very clear — and the message was sent with that bathroom fiasco a short while back — that there is literally nothing on which it will not speak, or rule, nothing, anywhere in which it will not interfere, and nothing which it considers the peoples’ business alone to decide for themselves.

    • ek ErilaR

      The solution is easy to state but very difficult to enact given the last 100 years of precedent: Limit the Supreme Court to its original jurisdiction and create a new constitutional court that is barred from applying stare decisis to its decisions and must consider each case de novo.

      • Brother John the Deplorable

        Agreed. The best interpretation of the words precedent and stare decisis is “the extent to which we were snowed previously, and a challenge to be met this time.

    • E. +Goldstein

      All power has been placed into the bureaucracy, but worse that ruling elite has become a kakistocracy that has sold out the American people. The Climate Accord does nothing about the climate but does transfer the wealth of the US to an international bureaucracy. Only someone who hates America could support it. Islam has a 1300 year history of violence.. Only a fool would want to live with the chaos that always goes with Islam.

  • JDComments

    Hayek warned that as Government assumed more and more power, it would also assume more and more liability. That is, those who disagreed with it would blame it for the failures which it policies caused.

    Thus partisanship and polarization is an inevitable by product of a metastasizing government and it grows worse as it feeds on itself.

  • hamburgertoday2017

    What Mr. Codevilla says is correct. The problem is how to ensure the Federal government — with it’s post-Civil war ‘universal’ power — focuses on ‘universal’ *issues*. In many ways, federalism was how we ended up with the Civil War because ‘states rights’ were interpreted to supercede (and even *define*) the rights of *citizens*.

  • Steve Levy

    Angelo, good luck getting the left to reverse its righteous grasp for totalitarian power.

    We’ve been past the point of no return for some time. Which makes secession the least violent — not the best, but certainly the least violent — way forward.

  • QET

    How much personal anxiety and partisan animus would be eliminated were the federal government, for example, to restrict its role in health care to ensuring a national marketplace? That—not current politicians’ divisive somersaults—is the role America’s Founders envisaged in the Constitution.

    That Rubicon has been crossed already. The American Left burned its ships off the coast of the New Deal so there would be no going back. Republicans presently in control of executives and legislatures are dreaming if they think that by not pressing home their present partisan advantage across the entire policy front, by trying to behave “moderately” or in “bipartisan” fashion, they are going to prolong their majority status; if they think that there is still (if there ever was) a great “undecided” or non-partisan mass of voters out there who are the real key to electoral victory and to whom they must make their pitch. No–it were better for all concerned if they actually emulated the Democrats and forced through the policies they say they stand for. They will not likely receive another opportunity.

    William James urged us to discover a moral equivalent of war, and that is precisely what progressives have been doing ever since. What James overlooked, however, is that moral equivalents of war all share in common with war that one’s opponent is the enemy, and is properly treated as such. No one ever went to war against an opponent. And the only beings capable of being an enemy are human beings. Wolves and lions are not enemies; mosquitoes and ticks are not enemies; poverty and racism are not enemies. Only other people can be enemies. And it is always the Left that is casting about for moral equivalents of war.

    • PubliusII

      The Left is a totalizing philosophy in that it refuses to acknowledge political Stop signs. There’s no built-in limit, no point at which the Left will say, “OK, we’re done. We’ve accomplished all we intended to do.”

      Because they acknowledge no limits, the rest of us cannot relax and in fact are compelled to oppose them at every turn. Why? They won’t stop unless we stop them.

      If that isn’t a setup for a war, well, I don’t what is.

    • Wyrdless

      “” if they think that by not pressing home their present partisan advantage across the entire policy front, by trying to behave “moderately”””

      I believe this is untrue. America is an inherently center -right country. Culturally liberal and fiscally conservative.

      If the Republicans go right on social issues at a federal level, they will lose the next election.

      If Republicans deliver economic growth they will win

      Attempting to eliminate abortion, gay marriage will end in disaster for Republicans. Also, I don’t think there is even a will to do that in the party. Lots of evangelicals got voted out and primaried.

      • QET

        They don’t have to go that far. They merely have to undo some of what the Left has done in the past 8 – 20 years. And not only or even mostly “social issues.” Wholesale repeal of a host of regulatory regimes is also what they should be doing.

  • Well, maybe wanting God would help as well.

  • Patrice Couture

    How much personal anxiety and partisan animus would be eliminated were the federal government, for example, to
    restrict its role in health care to ensuring a national marketplace?

    I would say “None”. The left created the identity politics game to silence critics and opposition to their agenda. The left has declared “war” on anyone who disagrees with them. They left have ratcheted up their violence-inciting rhetoric and their departure from sanity by the “Impeach Trump, resist by all means necessary, the GOP will kill Americans with their policies” approach – all emotion and completely devoid of facts. It is a false moral equivalence to suggest that the right is equally responsible for the current divide. There is no reasoning with the people on the left, as we currently know them.

  • J.P.

    “That is why reducing government’s role as fulfiller or destroyer of lives, as embodiment and arbiter of good
    and evil, is the only way by which we may do away with politics as competitive throat-shoving, the only chance for preventing our warming civil war from boiling over.”

    So why would the socialists — who view government’s role as a fulfiller of lives, as you put it, and thus, the “good”– ever want to revert to federalism, unless it was an emergency fall back position? The very notion of “fulfiller” is necessarily predicated on “throat-shoving”, i.e., they know what’s good for everyone, therefore they have the moral right to compel you. In their eyes, to do anything less would be to compromise with evil. So what’s in it for them? Peace? Persuasion? Respect for the individual? Pfah! Good luck with that.

  • Karl Marx

    Too late. “Federalism” would be perceived by the Left as a victory for the Right. There cannot be anyplace in the whole world not subject to their totalizing secular religion.

  • Nuther G. Mule

    Interesting premise and likewise some of the comments. I would see a return to federalism as the most correct way to reduce federal overreach. It should not be up to the left (or government) to accept a return to federalist principles, nor should we expect them to volunteer – it should be thrust upon them as the will of a free people, our Constitution, and a return to the rule of law which they seem to find oh so inconvenient and from which our founders set the foundation of this greatest nation.

  • DSmith2

    Too bad. And I mean that. But the Left started this, all by themselves. They have sown the wind, and will reap the whirlwind. Or does anyone think they will change their course, let alone their minds? War isn’t coming, war is here, right now, and has been for some years. It just hasn’t escalated to guns too often. Yet.

    • Wyrdless

      My prediction is history will repeat.

      The Dems will run a far left McGovern like person 2020, lose badly and then find a bill Clinton centrist who wins over the stick in the mud the Republicans choose for 2024.

  • Varian

    Prof. Codevilla might be more influential in reuniting us if he took a less partisan view of issues like when ‘courts decided to reform American society.’ Banning public school prayer lessened government involvement with religion. Mischaracterizing issues like this will not encourage us to roll back government generally. That’s just the same partisan divide by another name.

  • Wyrdless

    Federalism is certainly the best way forward.

    That said, there isn’t going to be a civil war. It just won’t happen. Yes, a few nuts might kill some people, but I just don’t see left wingers, streaming from the cities attacking people in the countryside. The city folk wouldn’t last a day after they get ambushed at their hotels

    What would that even look like?
    A stream of bowtie wearing hipsters in skinny jeans going to war? LOL