Our polity resides in a prison of its own making. American political differences have become more pronounced. We are further apart, which is surprising when one considers that the post–Cold War period offered an opportunity to enjoy a peace dividend and a potential golden age. On the other hand, perhaps it is not surprising that when an overwhelming external threat recedes, we find greater reason to direct our fears and dissatisfactions inward. Technological developments have encouraged us to descend into smaller and smaller sub-communities of interest and bias, and you have the polarized, uncivil, cancel-culture-ridden nation in which we live.
Many dread the vitriol that the 2024 election portends, yet they also distrust and even despise many of their fellow citizens. What to do when the various forces of history seem to conspire in the direction of civil conflict? We must take on the real obligations of citizenship.
The Nobility of Citizenship
One of the important ways we can improve our situation is by soberly contemplating the role of the citizen. Americans are famously citizens rather than subjects. Subjects are acted upon, while citizens act on their own behalf. They have agency. Ideally, like Aristotle’s middle class, they understand something of both following and leading. We enjoy our reputation for self-government.
Yet governing ourselves requires constant tending. We should consider that doing so implies more than participating in the making of the laws under which we live, but also that we govern our passions in such a way as to cultivate clear and considered judgment. When we petition, when we speak, when we organize, and when we make choices between candidates, we should do so in a way worthy of our political heritage, our status as beings made in the image of God, endowed with reason.
Stakes of Power
Not only does our nature call us to participate in politics in a more dignified and deliberative fashion; so, too, does the simple reality that lies behind politics. We make silly jokes about politics as something like “Hollywood for ugly people,” but that sort of view trivializes something that is terribly important. If we seek to understand politics, we need to contemplate its essence. And its essence is power and controlled violence. A somewhat blunt scientific definition of government is: the institution in society that has a legal monopoly on the coercive use of violence. That is what lies at the basis of politics. I can recall an Obama-era official saying that politics refers to the things we choose to do together, but such a view is far too glib and casual. Politics is the realm of the non-optional. When obedience falls short, the fine, the jail cell, and the lethal injection come to the fore. Where diplomacy ends, war begins.
Given the stakes, it is beyond absurd that we fail to control our hearts, minds, and passions when it comes to politics and government. Governments have been the predominant authors of mass death and enslavement of human beings. Great good comes of government, but so does great evil because it combines power with the human tendency to sin. Accordingly, we must take care. The power of government is often the straightest path to both boon and disaster. Which of the two destinations we reach is in part determined by our character.
Have we stewarded the power of politics wisely and for the common good? It seems to me that we have permitted the forces of disintegration and self-flattery to overwhelm and marginalize reserves of unity and humility. Given the stakes, every human being has good reason to take stock and reassess.
This reassessment should include efforts to sharpen our civic virtues. Plenty of empirical studies demonstrate how far we have drifted apart, so we should not begin by trying to reach some perfect compromise. Perhaps it is possible, but we must first tend to more basic matters such as how we think about each other and how we communicate.
For example, we need to learn how to disagree with one another accurately. Instead of characterizing opponents in ways that are lazy or malicious, we should discipline ourselves to state their positions in ways that they would embrace and say, “Yes, that’s exactly what I think.” A fundamental respect for our fellow citizens demands that we tell the truth rather than constantly whipping up storms of propaganda.
One deeply worrisome trend is that there are many who would claim that an honest reckoning with others’ views is actually nefarious. They might argue that extending respect and attempting to understand opponents is “normalizing” them. And normalizing is typically not virtuous. It is important to overcome this dangerous turn in our discourse. One way to do this is by focusing on personal humility and cultivating a basic affection for those who share our political community. If those higher-level notions don’t resonate with everyone, one could instead consider the consequences of conflict and alienation continuing to escalate.
Another important aspect of politics that seems to increasingly elude us is just how much of the overall picture is really subject to prudence. Certainly, there are major principles at stake as we contest matters such as the sanctity of life, the nature of marriage, and the way we deal with human sexuality. However, there is a vast galaxy of policy that deals with trade, labor, energy, the environment, fiscal stability, economic growth, foreign affairs, national defense, and more that is largely a matter of our working through good solutions and finding ways to balance interests. Many of the conflicts we have in these areas would be far easier to resolve if we treated them less like theological battles over critical points of doctrine and more like the pragmatic subjects they so often are. If we could reduce the temperature of our political climate, we might improve our chances of diminishing the number of disputes that appear to be intractable.
We seem to have fallen far from the American nation that could find unity in Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s Four Freedoms (Freedom from Want, Freedom from Fear, Freedom of Speech, Freedom of Religion), so beautifully depicted in Norman Rockwell’s paintings. Contemplating Rockwell’s Freedom of Speech points to the ways our country has changed. The main subject of the painting is a working man in his blue-collar clothing rising to speak at a local civic gathering held in a school. He has a program rolled up in his jacket pocket. The people around him attentively wait to hear what he will say. It is not hard to discern that the man’s face resembles an idealized Lincoln. The message is impossible to miss.
Freedom of speech is a precious, beautiful thing. It is worth protecting in two important ways. It is worth protecting from arbitrary restriction by those in power. But the dignity of speech is also worth protecting by those of us who wield it. We have not wielded it with the caution and forbearance that it requires. Those who are free must also be virtuous.
Our decisions and tone bleed upward and influence the quality of our government. Elected officials are attentive to what citizens care about. Some politicians are true leaders, statesmen rather than mere partisans. But most are instinctive. They will respond to us. So if we want to disagree more accurately and to carry out a higher quality discourse, then we must model it for them and show them that this constant parade of grotesque gestures and preening for clicks must end. Let us accompany our freedom with self-discipline, charity, and awareness of our own limitations.
As 2024 approaches, there will be tremendous temptations to go still further in taking the gloves off in an attempt to prevail by any means necessary. There will be power at stake, but also tremendous profit as the purveyors of opinion seek to build audiences and sell advertisements. But we are not helpless. We can be more fair to each other and thus create the conditions for a more fruitful discourse.
I think we can. But I believe we must if our polity is to survive.
Important announcement: Introducing our new Ethics Advice Column! This week, submit your ethical questions to Chris Tollefsen, our expert in natural law philosophy and ethics. Each quarter, we will publish Chris’s responses to select questions.