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In Praise of Polarization

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124791Defining Ideas:

Bipartisan compromise is deeply over-rated.

Bruce Thornton



As the presidential campaign intensifies, we are sure to hear more and more complaints about the “polarization” of the electorate and the increasingly bitter divide between the two major parties. “It’s worse now than it’s been in years,” the Brookings Institution’s Darrell West said recently. “Our leaders are deeply polarized, and ‘compromise’ has become a dirty word.” CNN’s senior political analyst David Gergen agrees: “As each of the parties has moved toward ideological purity, our politics have become ever more polarized, our governing ever more paralyzed. Extremists increasingly run the show.”


According to Thomas E. Mann and Norman J. Ornstein, “The partisan and ideological polarization from which we now suffer comes at a time when critical problems cry out for resolution, making for a particularly toxic mix.” The consensus is clear: Problems need solving, but political polarization has paralyzed the government.


Such complaints about polarization reflect a misunderstanding of our political order. What we decry as polarization exists not because politicians are party hacks, but because citizens passionately disagree about fundamental, and sometimes irreconcilable, principles and beliefs that most public policies necessarily reflect. Nor are these conflicts always amenable to compromise, which requires at some level a betrayal or weakening of those beliefs. The conflict over slavery is the obvious example, a dispute that defied every legislative and political “compromise” and ultimately had to be resolved by a bloody civil war. The Civil Rights movement and the disagreement over the war in Vietnam are other examples of “polarization” much more divisive and violent than anything we are experiencing today. In fact, such fierce disputes are as prevalent in American political history as bipartisan compromise. Both are in the DNA of our political system.




The current presidential campaign, then, is intensely polarized precisely because these two very different visions of human life and government are clashing: on the one hand, the believers in a techno-political elite who see the federal government and its coercive power as the source of social and economic order, justice, and flourishing; on the other, the believers in traditional Madisonian politics who see free, autonomous individuals and the “little platoons” of civil society as the foundations of both our political and economic order, and who view the power of the government with suspicion. For, like Madison in Federalist No. 48, they understand that “power is of an encroaching nature” given what George Washington in his 1796 Farewell Address called the “love of power, and proneness to abuse it, which predominates in the human heart.”


These clashing visions of the role of government reflect profound beliefs and principles that speak to people’s core views of human life, human identity, and the goods we should pursue. They are not technical problems that committees of experts can solve if only corrupt, hyper-partisan politicians would set aside their selfish interests and meet together in an Olympian spirit of disinterested cooperation. Polarization is not a political dysfunction, but rather the sign that free Americans take their fundamental political ideals seriously.

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