Contemporary American political life is vacuous in so many respects, maddening for so many reasons, and vexing quite to the bone. One of the sources of this frustration is the endlessly repeated trope that divisiveness is bad.
The stomach ought to churn at the sound of this effeminate wailing. The man decrying conflict in politics is either a simpleton – thin-skinned, and as out of his wits as President Obama without a teleprompter – or else a machinating schemer, the knave trying to win the debate by prematurely ending it. We may safely ascribe to the former category your ordinary genial-but-beliefless citizen, the kind of American who no doubt makes for a good father or son but just as surely makes for a lazy and incompetent voter.
In the latter category we may place at least two different nefarious types: both those bullies whose modus operandi it is to declare as outside the realm of acceptable thought opinions contrary to their own – thus opponents of same-sex marriage are “bigots,” and skeptics of the doom-and-gloom narrative of global climate change “deniers” (allusion to the Holocaust very much intended) – and those whose tack it is not to make moral judgment but to deny the very place of moral judgment at all in political debate. For these folks the greatest sin in public life is to “force your morals” or – heavens forbid! – your religion on others.
It isn’t that these people necessarily lack rational arguments; it is rather that they find it easier, and hence more politically effective, to impute stupidity, moral backwardness, and general ill-will to their benighted disputants. Has it ever been thus? Yes; for alas, it is one of the enduring features of the study of history that again and again such study offers us the cold comfort of knowing that much of the shallowness of our age is not unique.
In the spring of 1860, as old debates over slavery in the territories and fresh tension over the Dred Scott decision were riving our nation, the Constitutional Union Party felt it needed to speak to none of these issues in its platform but, instead, simply to declare that it would heed “no political principle other than the Constitution” and leave the exceedingly brief platform almost literally at that. It’s as though these dreamers just couldn’t admit to themselves that Americans north and south had read the same Constitution and disagreed over its proper interpretation. People don’t, in fact, always see eye-to-eye. Who would have thought it?
But there were charlatans in 1860 too. In the midst of an otherwise reasoned declaration of “the immediate causes which induce and justify the secession of South Carolina from the federal union,” the Palmetto State found space to complain that the wicked Yankees “have denounced as sinful the institution of slavery.” Say it ain’t so! It would not have been enough, it seems, for the Northern states merely to have discharged faithfully (in South Carolina’s eyes) their constitutional duties vis-à-vis escaped slaves; no, they needed to sit down and shut up – and stay that way, else delicate South Carolina (perhaps not sure in her heart of the rightness of chattel slavery?) would be possessed of an “immediate cause” for secession.
My goodness. Difference of opinion is of the essence in politics. We liberals and conservatives will forever be arguing over the proper size and scope of government, subscribing as we do to different conceptions of the role of government in a free society. We believe different things – there is a conflict of visions – and the inevitable bitter fruit is division.