The election will not make this go away

Never in my lifetime have I seen the electorate so passionate, and never before have the two sides seemed so utterly, unshakeably certain of themselves.

Campaigns are not the best places to seek out public confessions of self-doubt, but the certitude on display in this race has long since crossed the threshold from confidence to delusion, and whoever is elected on Tuesday (or whenever it ends) will soon be smacked in the face with the cold hard truth.

So speaks Matt Welch in the present issue of Reason Magazine. And he’s right, plainly. We are looking at a mighty standoff between the two parties.

What’s missing are all the old ear marks of thoughtfulness, deliberation, and judiciousness. That long, searching pause in which we try to search out the best response: “Well, yes, that’s a good point, but the way I see it…” “I have to think about this a little more, but I think its possible that…” When was the last time you heard one of these phrases in a political conversation between Democrats and Republicans. Now, it’s more like “Jane, you brainless twat…”

Anthropologically, this is interesting. What can we say at a minimum? That the friends of the two parties now hew to opinions that are not just different but oppositional, that one person’s truth is another’s poison, that the opposition is supposed to be not just wrong, but fundamentally, utterly mistaken. The political other is no longer “different from you and me,” they are now the anti-Christ, wrong to their very core, corrupt in their very essence. Sometimes you wonder whether a Holy War is not just something for the international stage.

Anthropologically, this is challenging. Do we know what one party believes to be true of the other? Can we parse these out, if only in a very preliminary way? I think this would be useful. For we are constructing one another when we engage in these debates. And it is precisely because this construction is so vilifying and condemnatory from the beginning that debate is so…little like debate.

What does the Democratic side believe to be true of the Republican side. 1) That they have no moral compass, 2) that whatever is is right, 3) that the state should not intervene to correct or protect, 4) that they refuse moral responsibility outside the boundary of the self, family, church and community, 5) that all the rest is a Darwinian free for all, 6) that the success of the republican regime means we are very close to going to hell in a hand basket, 7) that the environment, international politics, and the succoring state are all distinctly tipped in the direction of something cataclysmic (this way comes). Roughly.

What does the Republican side believe to be true of the Democratic side. 1) that they have no moral compass, 2) that they are deeply committed to a dangerously self indulgent individualism on the one hand, and a intrusive state regime on the other, 3) that they presume to know better than the individual, 4) that they will not allow the marketplace to be a (perhaps the) agent that reveals collective interests and intentions, 5) that they would choke off this marketplace in order to restore the world to order and in the process frustrate the most adaptive device at our disposal, 6) that they will fundamentally will not let the world be, but insist instead on a vanity of interference, on a presumption of knowledge in a world that long ago passed into complexities and dynamisms that are essentially inscrutable. More or less. (Hey, it’s Sunday afternoon. I am trying to watch the Giants beat, um, the other team.)

What’s scary from an anthropological point of view is how completely counter paradigmatic these assumptions are. What you believe I can’t imagine thinking. What I declaim you find virtually unintellligable. Surely, its time to start the debate again with a careful eye to what the deeper differences are. They may not be any negotiating them, but the terrible din of mutual incomprehension has surely run its course.

One thought on the difference. If you stand way back, squint your eyes, and look for the forest, here’s one thing that leaps out. The Republicans dislike the Democrats’ presumption that “they know best.” And the Democrats, when they examines the argument of the Republicans, content that “they just don’t care.”

These are two notions of morality. The Democrats say morality means caring, sharing, and making an effort. From their point of point of view, the Republicans’ notion of less government and more marketplace looks like a refusal of morality, a declaration of indifference, a Darwinian brutality. They cannot see that this represents a moral position. They believe that it indexes an absense of morality.

The Republicans say morality means staying out of the way, letting individuals do, risk, engage as they will and collectivities to shape themselves accordingly. From their point of view, the Democrats’ notion of intervention looks like a bleeding hearted presumption that the Liberal Left must know better than the world. They cannot see that this represents a moral position. The believe it represents a self flattery, an addled refusal to respect the emergent will of the world.

This is bullshit, I’m sure. But you see what I am trying to get at. The fundamental terms of the disagreement to which Matt refers. How is it that the two parties are now so utterly mutually exclusive in their assumptions? We need to get to the bottom of this. We need one set of terms that can encompass both points of view. How very pre post modern of me.

Besides, there are more pressing things to think about. Like whether the Vikings can make up a 22 point deficit in the remaining 12 minutes. Frankly, I don’t think so. And that’s the thing about Vikings. Really, they just don’t get it…


Welch, Matt. 2004 The Great Divide. The National Post. Reason Magazine and available at Welch’s website

2 thoughts on “The election will not make this go away

  1. Ennis

    Ah. But you’re missing something else, the fact that even other Republicans are saying that this administration is very different from other Republican governments. I don’t have time to enumerate the ways how now, but this is the most closed door (and pork barrel) congress we’ve had, it’s the first time Secret Service have been used to crack down on members of opposition parties at campaign rallies, it’s the first time voter suppression efforts have been this widespread and open since Jim Crow, etc.

    I really do think the complaints within the Republican party and by dissenting conservative thinkers are key to understanding what’s going on, and why this election is different from others.

    For example, Andrew Sullivan pointed out that the #2 Texas Republican is on the board of a group designed to bring Christian Law to America, and who goes around telling Pastors and Priests that they should forget about the first amendment, you know that we’ve crossed the rubicon.

    I really don’t see this as left-right business as normal. I see this government as being very unusual for the right, but trying to disguise disagreements as being the usual partisan split.

  2. Ennis

    None of the following are business as usual. Had democrats done any of these, most Republicans in years past would have had an immediate, and principled revulsion of these actions as unamerican. Yet this is the norm for this election.

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