Just as all is fair in war, no presumption of innocence exists in politics. To take the recent Supreme Court confirmation skirmish, both Dianne Feinstein and Brett Kavanaugh are guilty or innocent according to one’s own lights. You can presume guilt or innocence for all participants without violating any principle of justice. Only one principle governs political battles in this environment: that of reciprocity, or the blood feud. Your enemies will do unto you, as you have done unto them. Principles of justice do not apply.
We live in a time when politics appears to consume everything. We still have to raise children, of course, and children to not practice adult politics. We still have to work a job to earn a livelihood, and most of us have learned to keep politics far away from there. Churches seem reluctant to enter these battles, perhaps aware that politics has not been kind to religious beliefs or institutions in the past. Many civic groups, too, have held back from the political conflicts that surround us.
The problem is that when people want to fight, they generally do.
Yet these conflicts seem to shape our identities, elicit unhealthy anxiety, and raise passions to a point where the idea of a culture war seems tame. Only half of the country’s people identify with one of the major parties. That leaves the other half: those who heartily dislike both parties; those who dislike, or like, one more than the other; those who lean a certain direction in their social or policy preferences, but do not want to declare allegiance; those who identify with third parties or other political associations; and those who are indifferent to parties and party feuds. Polls could identify more groups, or we could think of more, if we tried.
The problem is that when people want to fight, they generally do. As soldiers and statesmen have observed, wars are easy to start, difficult to stop. Conflicts have momentum, like the mighty Mississippi. Instead of looking at the cost of fighting, you consider only the cost of losing. Since the cost of losing is generally high, you fight for a long time. If democracies cannot find a way to compromise differences, or distribute responsibility and credit for successful outcomes, you have the partisanship you currently see. No one is invested in successful outcomes, only power. Coerce, or be coerced.
How did we arrive at this point? Current political and cultural divisions evolved from open warfare that occurred during the 1960s. Even as these conflicts gestated and intensified during the 1990s, we hoped the successful conclusion of the Cold War would bring all of us an opportunity to relax. We did not need or want more threats, counter-threats, counter-measures, clandestine operations, and, most of all, the sense that destruction could be imminent.
For all the unity 9/11 brought about, the attacks – and our government’s response – represented a highly destructive turning point.
The arrival of a new century and millennium enhanced these hopes, but for all the unity 9/11 brought about, the attacks – and our government’s response – represented a highly destructive turning point. Why? Specifically, why did the national unity that followed the attacks linger so briefly? The answer is complicated, but I would say that episode caused the national government to lose the last remnant of public trust it still retained. When that happened, former citizens felt they had no stake in the country’s future success.
When an empire begins to fall apart, visibly, you have a war for power that could not occur when office holders exercise their power legitimately or responsibly. Politicians sense, perhaps more than the rest of us, that legal restraints have weakened appreciably. Nothing will protect them if they lose, as they see no era of good feelings on their political horizon. If they lose, they see only a future where “black is the color,” and “none is the number.” That is the calculus of zero-sum politics. That is the outlook of the blood feud.