America’s Political (Dis)Harmony

I know it’s still January, but I’m already looking forward to March 26, when I’ll visit the National Constitution Center and participate in a program on Civility & Democracy. During that event, which will culminate in a public Town Hall discussion, we’ll have the chance to consider some essential questions of American identity and organization — questions that have been made even more timely in the wake of the public debate following the shootings in Tucson:

  • Is partisan rancor the exception or the rule in American politics?
  • What would the Founding Fathers think of today’s political climate?
  • What factors contribute to eras of extreme partisanship?
  • Is partisanship “bad,” or simply the way democracies work?

I had been reflecting on those questions all weekend — and then in yesterday’s Washington Post I read a new piece by George Will, who was himself reflecting on the history of America’s political disharmony. “What made the American Revolution a novel event,” Will writes, “was that Americans did not declare independence because their religion, ethnicity, language or culture made them incompatible with the British. Rather, it was a political act based on explicit principles. So in America more than in Europe, nationalism is . . .’intellectualized’: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident.’ Who holds them? Americans. Who are Americans? Those who hold those truths to be self-evident.”

Will suggests we are, at our core, a “disharmonic society” because the ideals of [our] creed are always imperfectly realized and always endangered. For Americans, government is necessary, but “the distinctive aspect of the American Creed is its anti-government character. Opposition to power and suspicion of government as the most dangerous embodiment of power are the central themes of American political thought.”

Agree or disagree?

P.S. Next month, a new book of mine (a narrative history of free speech in America) is coming out. The title, We Must Not Be Afraid to be Free, is a line from a Hugo Black opinion, and the book is largely a trip through his career, and his own evolving understanding of how to strike the right balance, both individually and as an open society, between honoring our freedoms and controlling our fears.

Justice Black — a FDR appointee and, as a younger man in his home state of Alabama, a former Klansman — is remembered as one of the Court’s most vigorous defenders of free-speech rights. And yet at the end of his long career, as he watched the social fabric of the country unravel during the 1960s, Black did an about-face — and began ruling against free-speech claims. His own journey therefore provides a useful window into the personal challenges associated with tolerating the exercise of freedoms when the very act of voicing those ideas runs the risk of tearing us asunder.

Categories: Democracy, First Amendment

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