Handwringing Over “Polarization”

There has been, of late, an ongoing stream of books sounding the most earnest alarm over the “polarization” of our politics. The lament in the past was that our political parties were mixtures of groups with different tendencies, but with no sharp definition of character. But now the complaint is that the parties in Congress are indeed quite cohesive, in large part because their voters back home are themselves more committed, more consistent in what they take to be the principles that define the ends, or the purposes, of their party.

Whether the argument comes from the liberal or conservative side, the people who wring their hands over this turn in our politics will give a critical place to what they call the “social issues” – namely, abortion, marriage, gay rights, research on stem cells, assisted suicide. These are the issues that have unsettled our politics, with a dramatic shift in the geography of our voting.

Wealthy counties in New Jersey and New York, once solidly Republican, marked the shift between the first and second Bush. Nassau County in New York was carried George H.W. Bush in 1988 with 57 per cent of the vote and yet George W. Bush lost it by over 100,000 votes.

The unspoken truth is that the differences engaged here are nothing less than moral differences, but the people who deprecate the presence of these issues speak and write as though “moral” questions had no proper place in our politics, precisely because they fostered the disagreements about things that truly that ran to the root – most notably, who is that “human person,” the bearer of rights, the one who elicits our sympathy, our desire to protect and respect? The very term “social issue” reveals here a prejudice that seems quite unnoticed by the people who use the term.

In Tom Stoppard’s play, Travesties, the British consul in Zurich in 1917 is told by his butler that there has been a revolution in Russia. Taken by surprise, he asks, “What kind of revolution?” The butler tells him, “a social revolution.” “A social revolution?” He muses, “Unaccompanied women smoking at the Opera, that sort of thing?”

In our politics today, “a social issue” seems to be constituted, for example, by the question of “who is protected by the laws of homicide? Does a baby change his species when he is born, or do the laws on the killing of humans protect all humans, even when they are short and small and still in their mothers’ wombs?”

But when did the protection of human life become a “social issue,” something quite remote from the main business of our politics and laws? Isn’t the protection of human life one of those cardinal concerns, which call forth the laws, and the political order, in the first place?

"Jeremiah Lamenting the Destruction of Jerusalem" by Rembrandt, 1630
“Jeremiah Lamenting the Destruction of Jerusalem” by Rembrandt, 1630

And when did it cease to be anything but a deep concern of the law as to the terms on which children may be begotten and nurtured? When it comes to the begetting and nurturing of children, it has always made a difference as to who is committed to bear responsibility for those children.

Samuel Goldwyn used to say that a verbal contract was not worth the paper it was printed on. We might say that an informal “commitment” is not a commitment in the way that a commitment marked in the law is a real commitment. For nothing more clearly marks the man who forecloses his freedom to leave his wife or child as it suits his convenience.

It takes nothing less than a revolution in thought to produce politicians and pundits who think that these issues of life and marriage are not really “political” issues, that they are somehow exotic or distant from the main, legitimate issues of politics. And what could they possibly think forms, instead, the proper issues of politics: questions utterly detached from arguments about the things that are truly right or wrong, just or unjust?

But that sense of things brings us back, as ever, to Aristotle and the recognition that the political order is marked by the presence of law, and law can spring only from the nature of that creature who can give reasons over matters of right or wrong.

Our politics is more polarized today precisely because people take these kinds of issues more seriously, or that these questions foster the most emphatic moral passions. But it doesn’t follow from all of this that the passions on either side are equally plausible or implausible.

We could imagine what someone would have sounded like in Germany in the 1930s, pleading for the parties to “moderate” their antagonism to that new party, the National Socialists? Might they have urged a “compromise,” say, giving some compensation to Jews whose belongings were confiscated, or putting some limits of age on people sent to the concentration camps?

Nelson Rockefeller, when he was governor of New York, once exhibited this sense of pragmatism by offering to negotiate over the weeks of gestation at which a child in the womb could be legally aborted. There are no doubt places where people of prudence could work out compromises, as Lincoln did, without doing violence to their principles.

But what the grieving over “polarization” seems to rule out is that, at the base of it all, one side on these questions may be right, and the other quite emphatically wrong.

Hadley Arkes is the Ney Professor of Jurisprudence Emeritus at Amherst College and the Founder/Director of the James Wilson Institute on Natural Rights & the American Founding. He is the author of Constitutional Illusions & Anchoring Truths: The Touchstone of the Natural Law. Volume II of his audio lectures from The Modern Scholar, First Principles and Natural Law is available for download. His new book is Mere Natural Law: Originalism and the Anchoring Truths of the Constitution.