What a mess!
The current American political scene is likely to provoke this response from the thoughtful observer. Honesty, civility, and cooperation are almost unheard of. A sense of justice that does not entail revenge seems increasingly rare. Civic duty has given way to power grabs, political maneuvering to outright lies and even violence, and the common good to factional rights. A sense of fair play is all but lost.
But where, the thoughtful person might ask, have we gone wrong? Human nature has not deteriorated. The lust for power is nothing new under the sun. Why does public life seem worse now than in earlier eras?
Part of the answer may be that public life only seems worse. No one is being tarred and feathered today, as loyalists were in the revolutionary period. Politicians are not killing other politicians in duels, as Aaron Burr did to Alexander Hamilton. There are no fistfights in Congress, as there were leading up to the Civil War. And of course, we are not currently in a civil war.
Some people point to flagrant bias in today’s media as evidence that public life is worse, but bias is nothing new in the history of American journalism. Many early American newspapers openly operated according to particular political views. Perhaps what has changed is the lack of openness about the bias. Nearly everyone knows that Fox News and The Wall Street Journal generally swing to the right, while CNN and The New York Times generally swing to the left. Yet all of these media outlets claim objectivity and fairness. If they would drop such a patently false façade, perhaps the outrage over bias would settle down.
In addition, modern technology has given us previously unimagined access to the political underbelly. Dealings have always been dirty, but we could not see so much of the dirt before the digital age.
Despite these examples of earlier problems in American public life, the perception that things are worse now than before is not merely imaginary. Some scholarly observers of public discord are saying that our society is more divided now than at any time since the Civil War. Moreover, there is a way in which public life might well be worse today than at any other time in America’s fraught history.
There is something that our society has all but abandoned, the rejection of which is impoverishing our discourse and could be fatal to our free republic. This thing is truth.
As a society we no longer seek truth because, at bottom, we do not believe in it. Either truth is relative or undiscoverable, or it is less important than victory, or it is found mainly through a hopelessly unreliable source: our emotions. We still love facts, of course. The digital age has put innumerable facts at our fingertips, and we devour them like sharks. What we are abandoning is a coherent lens for interpreting those facts, a way of discerning meaning from bare facts and thereby finding truth.
This rejection of truth is highly toxic to societal liberty. This is because liberty is not freedom from responsibility, it is precisely the opposite. Liberty is self-rule, which entails great responsibility, indeed, all the burdens of government. We cannot possibly bear those burdens effectively without truth. Without truth there is no right or wrong and therefore no firm and fair foundation for law. We need law – reason without passion, derived from natural law – to serve as the even-handed power over society in order to ensure justice. Without law there is chaos, a power vacuum that is destined to be filled by the powerful. That powerful person or group becomes our master, and we the servants.
What, then, are we to do? Is there anything that can stop us in our headlong plunge into servitude? One useful step would be to turn to the past. This does not mean that we should try to go back to the past, because that is neither possible nor desirable. The only direction in time available to us is forward. We can, however, draw upon the past for insights into the nature of things, and those insights can serve as lenses for finding truth.
Take, for instance, the French Revolution. There may be no movement in history with higher ideals than those espoused in the Revolution. By dispensing entirely with the relics of the past – monarchy, Christianity, practically the entire societal self-conception – the French people could come to enjoy liberty, equality, and brotherhood. Five years into the Revolution, Maximilien Robespierre – architect of the Reign of Terror – waxed eloquent about the reign of eternal justice and the bright day of universal happiness.
These are lofty goals, indeed. Too lofty, as it turns out. People are far too selfish for such goals to be realized in this life. To Robespierre and his fellow Jacobins, however, the problem was not a mismatch between the goals and the nature of people, but rather certain people’s interference with the goals. Those who were not sufficiently committed to the Revolution were the problem. The solution was the guillotine, the extermination of supposed enemies without due process. Even after Robespierre’s Reign of Terror ended, sectarian strife continued to plague France until the power vacuum was filled by the powerful: Napoleon. So much for eternal justice and universal happiness.
America is, blessedly, far from a Reign of Terror. What many of us share with the revolutionary French, however, is a thoroughly optimistic view of human potential. Given the right societal structures and the suppression of outdated beliefs, universal happiness is within our reach. Although today we in the West tend to deny that there is such a thing as human nature, we agree with the revolutionary view that our potential is good without limit. This was, and still is, an erroneous understanding of the nature of people.
Contrary to the revolutionary view, the historical record is clear that we humans tend naturally toward hierarchy, we naturally need religion, and we have never even approached universal happiness in earthly life.
Those errors about human nature led to unworkable and even despotic government in revolutionary France, for government is “the greatest of all reflections on human nature,” as James Madison noted. Our similar errors, then, put us at risk of a modern-day Terror, and a modern-day Napoleon.
Across the Atlantic, not long after the Terror ended, the first President of the United States laid out an alternative vision of government, based on a profoundly different understanding of human nature. As his retirement approached, George Washington delivered his Farewell Address to the American people, containing what he called “the disinterested warnings of a parting friend.”
One of those warnings was about “the baneful effects of the Spirit of Party,” by which he meant essentially group-based selfishness, or placing the needs or demands of one’s own political group above the needs of the nation. He rightly saw this tendency as natural to humans, and therefore in need of constant, conscious control, lest there be jealousy, animosity, revenge, and riots. He also saw that this tendency opened a nation to foreign influence, and would ultimately result in the absolute power of an individual. Washington reached these conclusions by observing history, including the then-current history of the French Revolution.
Washington’s words are as true and applicable today as they were in 1796. Party loyalties have metastasized, revenge marks our politics as riots mar our public square, each side credibly accuses the other of being influenced by a foreign power, and each side credibly fears the rise of an autocrat in the other camp.
The spirit of party will destroy us, if we let it.
Washington had other important warnings, of course, such as the importance of religion and virtue for political prosperity. We could likewise turn to Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King, Jr., and other pillars of wisdom in our heritage. We could also explore the likes of Karl Marx and the Dred Scott decision, where faulty understandings of human nature led to devastating human costs.
The point here is not to exhaust our sources, but to introduce them and to show that lenses for truth can be found in them if only we look with discernment. We can account for elements that are bound by time and circumstance, then look beyond them to the core principles that participate in, or reject, the nature of things. Those principles serve as lenses to help us discern truth. If we use those lenses well and let truth guide us toward wisdom and justice, perhaps over time we will see the emergence of a more civilized America. Not a perfect America, not a universally happy one, but something better than the mess of our current public life.
Russell Dawn is Associate Professor of History at Concordia University Irvine