In this winter of discontent we discover that democracy contains a dark side. We should lower our expectations without giving up hope.
The president suggests that Democrats do not love our country. The Democrats claim the president betrayed his oath of office. Americans are so divided about impeachment that it often seems that we live in different universes.
But this is to be expected. Free people will diverge. Liberty leads to discord and disagreement. We even disagree about what counts as reasonable. The challenge is to accept this, the cold shadow of democracy, without giving in to cynicism.
The ideal version of enlightened democracy is sunny and enlightened. It imagines virtuous citizens meeting together in public to deliberate and reach reasonable consensus. The losing party would graciously concede, while admitting that the process was fair and their opponents were worthy.
Enlightened democracy is republican in the classic sense, where a republic is a government based on the public good (in Latin, the “res publica”). Thomas Paine explained, for example, “Republican government is no other than government established and conducted for the interest of the public.”
The enlightenment dream is of public-spirited and rational citizens sharing a common understanding of the good of the community. They would have faith in the intelligence and good will of their opponents.
A phrase from Thomas Jefferson explains the genteel dream of enlightened deliberation. In a letter to John Adams, Jefferson describes the two of them as “rational friends” despite their deep disagreements. Jefferson said, “you and I differ; but we differ as rational friends, using the free exercise of our own reason, and mutually indulging its errors.”
In these winter months, Americans no longer view one another as “rational friends.” We appear to lack a common vision of the good life. We believe in different facts. We suspect treasonous malice in the other. And we disagree about what is reasonable. This makes public deliberation impossible.
The impeachment hearings are sterile debates, not collegial deliberations. The participants in these “hearings” do not listen. Instead, they talk past each other. Each side has already decided what it believes. There is no effort to find common ground. And each side blames the other for being irrational and partisan.
We are witnessing what is sometimes called “agonistic” democracy. This is democracy as strife, struggle, and conflict (in Greek, “agon” means competition). Agonistic democracy is not about building rational friendship — it is about defeating political foes. The focus is on gaining partisan advantage. The goal is to build power, not to achieve rational consensus.
Agonistic democracy is full of dirty tricks and Machiavellian maneuvers. Fallacious arguments are made. Facts are ignored. And reason is left out in the cold.
President Trump is a master of this game. But he did not invent it. It is an old game familiar to Socrates, Shakespeare, and to the founders.
James Madison warned that people can be “blinded by prejudice” and “corrupted by flattery.” We are prone to error, delusion, and the tyranny of the passions. The system of checks and balances seeks to mitigate the damage caused by the “violence of faction,” which is the “mortal disease” that destroys democracy.
The partisanship in D.C. can leave us disillusioned and cynical. Cynics give up on the dream of rational friendship and public deliberation. When we succumb to cynicism, we sink further into the abyss of Machiavellianism, with violence lurking around the corner as the irrational nadir of a world gone mad in pursuit of power.
Madison’s remedy is the checks and balances of the Constitution. But we also need hope that this dark winter too shall pass. History moves in waves. There are moments of cold-hearted darkness. But the spring will come again — so long as we don’t burn the bridges that can lead us back to rational friendship.
In the same letter that Jefferson wrote to Adams, he noted that he and Adams were both too old to change their opinions. It may be too late for friendship to bloom in the winter years of the Trump-Pelosi generation. But the younger generation can do better. Let’s teach the youth to be better: to be more rational, more republican, and more friendly.