On National Public Radio, a blue host bleats "Your side won...at a cost of national unity." Her red guest fires back without hesitation: "We’re preserving important values." He turns back the question — "Do you mean to say that if we had voted with the other side on homosexual marriage we would have national unity?" — to draw his own conclusion — "No, of course we’ve got a divide..."
This divide is where politics should be. It has opened into an abyss. The blue side tries to ignore the political divide altogether. The other side welcomes the abyss.
The legions of George W. Bush won the election because in general Americans have forgotten what politics is. More than any policy of the President, law of the Congress, or ruling of the Supreme Court, this heralds the end of democracy. America desperately needs to revitalize politics. This means we have to learn to take conflict seriously.
It is obvious that Democrats have failed to do so. Especially after 9/11, all they can muster is a few rounds in the ring. Then, it’s a handshake and home for dinner. And "healing."
But how can it be said that the hard-driving trickster cadres of Karl Rove don’t take conflict seriously? It has to do with their total obsession with themselves.
The President’s team mobilized so-called "value voters." These are people who may negotiate over where to put the new traffic light or how to rebuild the dilapidated school, but are unwavering on questions like homosexual marriage or abortion. Why?
Some will say rigidity sets in when it is time to "preserve important values." That is exactly wrong. In local conflicts the stakes are palpable. Resistance comes from neighbors. If conflict goes too far, all projects in the city are blocked now. That is soon intolerable.
When it comes to general questions, however, the risks of taking a position are small. Distance and abstraction slow compromise. Beliefs which never meet the obstacle of reality are smug. The unchallenged self-righteous see no need to negotiate because they don’t have to. Conflict without stakes becomes a game. It, perversely, intensifies. But this kind of conflict is increasingly sterile.
Politics is what makes conflict productive. When we forget this, the canny few herd the many like sheep. Grazing the pasture of morals and emotion we are drawn away from our interests. We become preoccupied with immobilizing and insoluble problems like impurity and insecurity. Public debate fails and the civic good slips from sight.
Today, we are witnesses to this kind of shift. All parties have become complicit in the anti-politics politics of the wolves. The defeated praise consensus and point to "the need for unity." The winner says to his adversaries "I will need your support, and I will work to earn it." A myopic press tell us these two statements are the same.
They are not. The call to come together and the call to change sides are as different as red and blue. When John Kerry speaks of "the danger of division" he speaks from a position of weakness. The consuls of George W. Bush brim with glee. The dangers of division derive from the wolves, not from the sheep.
An important part of politics is to make life costly for the wolves. Fanaticism burns unchecked in a political climate where values stand apart from everyday interdependence. More dangerous than the single-issue voter is the "whatever it takes" posture towards conciliation.
Shall we stand suspended in "national unity" to witness the final destruction of a decent and honest America?
Should we be grateful to the congressional cowards who did not oppose the gratuitous invasion of Iraq?
Should our children honor those who burden their future with ruinous tax cuts for the rich?
"Healing" that gives free rein to fanatics is a dangerous disease. America needs to channel its conflicts into politics. We must do so between elections. We cannot simply wish conflict away. Only concerted resistance will make the wolves think twice, or even once.
The two words which have burst onto our screens since election day — "values" and "unity" — speak volumes. Of course, politics emerges from our beliefs about what is good. And it sometimes arrives at a momentary consensus. But such things stand outside the special kind of human relationship which takes its name from the ancient Greek word for city (polis).
Politics begins with the fact that we must live together everyday. Inevitably, this will lead to problems, and problems will escalate into conflict. No matter how rowdy it gets, politics constitutes conflict into a structured field. This is an indispensable benefit for everyone in the city. It is the public good that makes us citizens.
We enter the field of politics by choosing speech over violence. When love or friendship settle an issue we have taken another path. Look around and you will see that this is exceptional. Even within the most tight-knit community the essential plurality of human beings time and again brings politics back to the center of our lives. We do politics when we cannot see eye-to-eye but must live together anyway. It is not a matter of agreement but of constantly shifting balances.
The democracy we adore is not a moral doctrine or a type of love. Democracy is a species of politics. No better way has been found to realize our distinctively human capacity to engage in conflict with words. A nation that cannot sustain political forms for conflict cannot be a democracy. That is where we are headed. Unless the sheep speak up.
Written from Princeton, N.J., November 8, 2004