On the Moral Alchemy of the Political Party

We have heard now, almost every day, the breathless news from pundits, lacking anything original to say, that our country and our politics are “polarized.”  The next bit of wisdom tendered is that we need political men and women of larger nature,  who can break away from their political attachments and find some ever-beckoning middle ground.

This perspective treats the “political” as though it was the mark of some distemper, or some “lower” motive that needs to be transcended.  What is lost is the classic sense coming down to us from Aristotle:  that the “polis” is an irreducibly moral association.   It is a community that shares at least some rough understanding of the things that are just and unjust, right and wrong, and that understanding finds its sharpest reflections in the laws.

As Aristotle understood,  it was through the laws that the polity engaged in moral teaching.  When Congress barred racial discrimination in places of “public accommodation,” it displaced private choice, and treated this policy as a matter of moral consequence, binding on everyone.   And in our own time those “political” questions touch the gravest questions, reaching the very meaning of the “human person,” who will come under the protection of the laws.


Recent commentaries have largely filtered or purged the “moral” from the public sense of the “political.”  And in the same way, they have also lost the sense also of the distinctly “moral” work done by political parties. We have had a politics marked for more than 200 years by two dominant parties.  The parties have been radically reshuffled and reshaped over the years through the gravest crises in our politics where the regime itself has been redefined.

There have been three main crises:  with Jefferson’s election in 1800; the crisis of the Civil War with Lincoln: and the New Deal with Franklin Roosevelt. In each crisis the regime was changed, and the party associated with the change became stamped as the majority party.   That party would enter every election with the presumptive loyalties of most of the voting public.

But those presumptions could be overcome at times by different issues and candidates. Still, FDR caught the matter early in the last century when he said that since the end of the Civil War, Democrats could win only by accident.  There was the fluke of Grover Cleveland, or the case of Woodrow Wilson, managing to win only because Theodore Roosevelt ran as a third-party candidate and split the Republican vote.

The formative crisis usually marks some serious disagreements about the Constitution itself, about the distribution of power and the ends rightly pursued by the federal government. At the time of Jefferson, it was unimaginable that the federal government could be building housing and sponsoring birth control in our cities.

The differences cannot be understood apart from the firming of the national government under Lincoln, and the expansion of that government, in the commitment to public “welfare,” under Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson.


What is not sufficiently appreciated is the way in which those perspectives on the regime are formed through the deeply practical work of bringing groups together in a coalition that can win.  For it was a task of showing how the interest of different groups could be reconciled in a manner understood to be “just.”  And the principles that explained that reconciling of interests could be projected then, to the country at large, as the principles that could explain the powers of a government directed to rightful ends.

Professor Barrington Moore pointed out that it made the most profound difference that, under Lincoln and the Republicans, the business and industrial class classes were connected with small-holding farmers in the Midwest and West to support a regime of freedom, a regime that would put slavery “in the course of extinction.”  But in Germany the coalition was made between the industrial classes and the Junkers, to support an authoritarian regime.


In its very first days, the new Biden Administration reversed the policies of the preceding Administration, which had refused to regard abortion as a public good to be funded or promoted, at home and abroad.  Biden dissolved the Commission on Unalienable Rights, in the State Department because that commission, formed by Secretary Pompeo, did not regard “reproductive rights” as one of those fundamental, “unalienable” rights.   The same shift, of course, is already at work on religious freedom.

The new Administration is also determined to promote transgenderism as a doctrine to be taught in public schools, and promoted in any organization that benefits from public funds and regulations.  At the same time, the Administration stands fully behind the teaching of the 1619 Project: that this American regime was founded for the preservation of slavery, and marked enduringly as corrupt.  Which is to say, one of our major parties has now incorporated a contempt for the American Founding and the institutions it put in place.

In the recent presidential election, we were faced with two candidates unappealing in different ways.  The mystery is why so many educated people became so fixated on Donald Trump that they could not understand how some of us saw a choice between two Administrations, reflecting differences that promised to be systematic, as morally momentous.

During the Civil War, Catholics did not fit comfortably in an anti-slavery movement that was powered by a militant Protestantism.  One young Irish immigrant joined the Union army, and his decision was met with incredulity by his family. But in a note to his family, he showed a grasp that well exceeds that of the party of “1619” in our own time.  “This is my country,” he wrote, “as much as the man who was born on the soil. . . .This is the first test of a modern free government in the act of sustaining itself against internal enemies. . .if it fails, then the hopes of millions fail and the designs and wishes of all tyrants will succeed. . .Irishmen and their descendants have. . .a stake in [this] nation.”


Images: [all in the White House Collection, Washington, DC]

* Thomas Jefferson by Rembrandt Peale, 1800

** Abraham Lincoln by George P. A. Healy, 1869

*** Franklin D. Roosevelt by Frank O. Salisbury, 1947

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.