The Blue and The Gray by Mort Kunstler

In recent years, it has become obvious to all but the willfully blind that all is not well with the American experiment in self-government and ordered liberty.

The signs that something is seriously wrong are myriad: a degree of polarization unprecedented since the Civil War era; a bitter and debilitating culture war; the erosion of the bonds of civic amity and emergence of a civic culture animated by mutual hatred and contempt; the seeming loss of any notion of an overarching common good to which private interests must be subordinated and resultant understanding of politics as a zero sum game; a pervasive cynicism and a growing crisis of legitimacy; and what might be called “gridlock” wherein the fragmentation of the body politic into a plethora of competing interests whose conflicting and ever-escalating demands induce something akin to political paralysis.

Indeed, we seem to be witnessing the rise of what three political scientists — Michael Crozier, Samuel P. Huntington and Joji Watanuki — once termed “anomic democracy” in which “democratic politics becomes more an arena for the assertion of conflicting interests than the building of common purposes.”

In fact, so divided are we and so dysfunctional have our politics become that some commentators speak of us as being in the midst a “cold civil war” and others have begun to speak about the possibility of secession.

Various explanations have been put forward to explain this state of affairs. These run the gamut from the corrupting influence of money, to the excessive democratization of our politics through things like primaries and caucuses, to the displacement of democracy by government by judicial or administrative fiat, to the impact of social media to technologically enhanced gerrymandering, to rise of political parties, to the nationalization of our politics, to the proliferation of interest groups, to the emergence of identity politics.

There’s some truth in each of these explanations; all have contributed to the dysfunction that besets our public life today. What I want to do, however, is to call our attention to is what I believe to be a more important and more fundamental cause, a cause that is cultural rather than institutional or procedural.

A clue to the nature of this cause can be gleaned from Tocqueville’s observation that men do not “form a society simply by recognizing the same leader and obeying the same laws.” On the contrary, “no society is able to prosper without similar beliefs, or rather none can continue to exist in such a way; for, without common ideas, there is no common action, and without common action, there are still men, but not a social body. So, for society to exist, and, with even more reason, for . . . society to prosper, all the minds of the citizens must always be brought and held together by some principal ideas.”

A political society – or at least a political society not on the brink of disintegration – is more than a purely external order of command and obedience. It rests on a consensus, a body of shared beliefs. While this consensus will necessarily have a procedural dimension such as the protocols to be followed in making decisions (in the vernacular, “the rules of the game”), the locus of legitimate authority, etc., it necessarily encompasses an agreement about the political and moral principles that justify the structure of the polity’s public order and specify both the content of the commonweal and the ends of public policy.

It is through such a public consensus, as the great Catholic theorist of American democracy John Courtney Murray noted, that “the people acquires its identity as a people and the society is endowed with its vital form . . . its sense of purpose as a collectivity organized for action in history.”

The truths embodied in its public philosophy define a society’s character, its fundamental moral and political commitments. They play a critical role in transforming an aggregation of individuals and groups living in geographical proximity to one another a people. By doing so, moreover, they provide the basis for common action rooted in agreed-upon principles, goals, institutional structures, and decision-making processes.

Indeed, they facilitate effective political action by furnishing a shared understanding of the goals to which the body politic is dedicated and the common universe of discourse that allows for coherent and fruitful public argument. They provide the soil from which a sense of solidarity and the habits of the heart that Tocqueville celebrated can grow.

When such a consensus ceases to exist, the result is a loss of what Daniel Bell terms civitas, namely, that spontaneous willingness to obey the law, to make sacrifices for the public good, to respect others, to subordinate individual and group self-interest to the good of society as a whole, to fulfill civic responsibilities –“in short, to honor ‘the city’ of which one is a member” — on which the health of the body politic depends.

Thus, when a society’s public consensus collapses, the society itself will begin to disintegrate into collection of warring tribes. The most striking example of this occurs when a society explodes into two bitterly opposed camps that, disagreeing fundamentally on the moral and political principles that should govern public life, are unable to coexist in peace; and the society erupts into civil war. America’s own Civil War would be a case in point.

Less dramatically, however, as the public philosophy that united it gradually disappears, a society may splinter into a multitude of hostile groups – a multitude of tribes, as it were — which far from viewing each other as partners in a common enterprise and exhibiting an attitude of trust toward one another, will instead view each other with hostility, fear and resentment.

At the same time, insofar as decisions on public policy involve the use of means to achieve social goals, the loss of shared purposes will make decision-making increasingly difficult, if not impossible. If we can’t agree about where we trying to go, how are we ever going to agree about – or even rationally discuss — the best means to get there?

As civic amity and a community of purposes and values disappear, in short, the groups into which the polity has fragmented will be increasingly unable to reach agreement about public policies, increasingly reluctant to make compromises, and increasingly unwilling to sacrifice their own interests for the good of the community as a whole. Thus, unified action on the part of the community will become increasingly difficult if not impossible and political paralysis increasingly possible.

Under such conditions, politics degenerates into what Alasdair MacIntyre once called “civil war carried on by other means” and what we’ve termed anomic democracy ensues. The machinery of democracy continues to operate, but effective governance becomes impossible. The end result is the loss by the state of its legitimacy, its moral authority.

A viable democratic society, in short, depends on more than an agreement on the formal rules of the game. While a constitution can be a powerful unifying force, by itself it is simply insufficient. Absent a more substantive agreement, absent a more substantive source of unity, a democratic polity cannot cohere.

How can you have “government by the people,” without having a people?

This agreement about the foundational moral and political principles governing public life, in turn, necessarily unfolds in the context of some type of broader agreement regarding the nature of man, the character of the human good, and the structure of social relations that should inform human life.

Furthermore, since our understanding of man and the human good is necessarily going to be shaped by our understanding of the ultimate meaning and purpose of human existence, this anthropological-moral consensus does presuppose some measure of metaphysical and theological agreement. It is difficult to see, after all, how the proponents of religions or philosophical systems that involve radically incompatible understandings of the nature and destiny of man can arrive at an agreement about the substantive moral and political principles that should inform public life.

Here we arrive at one of the fundamental sources of our problems today: America has always been a pluralistic polity and our pluralism has expanded dramatically in the course of history. Despite our ever-increasingly pluralism, however, until fairly recently we’ve managed to maintain the kind of substantive public consensus — the kind of broad agreement on the nature of man, the human good, and the proper structure of human social relations—which we’re discussing here.

In Lincoln’s formulation, even during our civil war, we “read the same bible and pray[ed] to the same God.” Today, our pluralism has grown to the point where, as Francis Canavan observes, we’ve reached the point where “we are ceasing to agree even in basic respects on what man is and how he should live,” where morally and intellectually we can scarcely be considered one people.

Thus, while we continue to agree about the rules of the game, substantive agreement about the purposes of the game is increasingly lacking. And, as the common body of cultural capital on which we have historically traded disappears, our political institutions have become increasingly dysfunctional. As for what the future holds, insofar as the prospects for reestablishing some type of substantive consensus any time in the foreseeable future seem slim, it seems likely we’re looking at dysfunction as far as the eye can see. And, that is not, to put it gently, a happy prospect.

Professor Kenneth L. Grasso teaches in the Department of Political Science at Texas State University

Professor Kenneth L. Grasso teaches in the Department of Political Science at Texas State University.