05 October 2018

It takes two...

Thomas L. Friedman worries that the U.S. is spiritually closer to civil war today than at any time since the actual Civil War ended. While admitting that this hasn't been the most violent time domestically since then as far as politics is concerned, he's troubled by the increased, unprecedented tribalism of American politics, which he, following the political scientist  Norman Ornstein,  defines less as identity politics than as an uncompromising "rule or die" sentiment. Friedman appears to agree with Ornstein that Republicans are primarily to blame, going back to Newt Gingrich's ascendancy. That doesn't sound right, somehow. Republicans had been denouncing liberal Democratic policies as dangerously un-American long before Gingrich came along, and to focus on the 1990s is really to deplore the new ability of Fox News and radio talkers like Rush Limbaugh to amplify that familiar message. But while Friedman resists what he calls a temptation to blame both parties, we wouldn't be where he sees us at if not for a hardening of attitudes on the left. If Republicans since the Cold War increasingly have treated Democrats as surrogates for their ideal Communist enemy, Democrats have found Republican rule increasingly unacceptable and even illegitimate. Republicans may have provided the original provocations, but Democrats arguably take the "rule or die" attitude to a greater extreme than Republicans, since it's their belief, infuriatingly rejected by Republicans, that politics is primarily a means for keeping people alive. Democrats seem more likely than Republicans to believe that government policies literally can condemn people to death, or to take the "tribal" viewpoint that taking power means "It's our turn to eat." If things seem worse now than in Gingrich's time, it's because Democrats, increasingly inclined to attribute conservative politics entirely to bigotry, are starting to abandon that acquiescence in defeat that's actually a necessary attribute of liberalism as a political system. The liberal order remained stable so long as acquiescence in defeat remained the norm, but now that neither party seems interested in acquiescence Friedman senses danger. He wants us all to step back to a point when compromise wasn't seen as a sin, but that will require both sides to concede that they can't have everything they want at a time when it's unclear that either side can do so -- not when your liberty, your identity or your very life seems to ride on the outcome of each election. If anything, we may all need to take politics less seriously. You'd think having someone like Donald Trump in the White House would make that easy, but reality shows us that the problem Friedman perceives is bigger than he admits.

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