By Rudy Barnes, Jr.
The election earlier this month revealed irreconcilable differences between America’s two political parties that threaten the demise of democracy. It is analogous to a divorce where irreconcilable differences justify the dissolution of a marriage.
America experienced a violent political divorce 156 years ago in its Civil War, and it’s debatable whether the split was ever reconciled, except when America went to war with other nations. Recalling Lincoln saying a house divided against itself cannot stand, Garrison Keillor suggested that America’s polarized parties get a divorce and move to a duplex. That’s better than Lincoln’s approach to save the union/house by destroying the party seeking to secede.
Assuming that secession is not a viable option, where do we go from here? A politics of reconciliation is essential for our democracy to survive, but most are not willing to reconcile with their political adversaries. For reconciliation to work, there must be common values shared by both sides. They seem elusive in the contentious tribal divide between a party of identity politics that seeks to change traditions while the other seeks to return to the halcyon traditions of the past.
The multi-party model of parliamentary democracy seems better suited than the American two-party duopoly to avert political polarization. Third parties can mitigate against the polarization of two dominant parties. But in America there is no place for third parties at the national level. To be legitimate a political party must be able to elect candidates to office, and that requires political infrastructure that only the two dominant parties can provide.
The partisan divide is ironic. Trump is a radical-right Ayn Rand objectivist whose crude and rude showmanship garnered him the support of evangelical Christians; and Hillary Clinton represented a corrupt dynasty of politics as usual who led a center-left party of disparate minorities and the intellectual elite. Election results indicated that the GOP tribe of working class whites were more motivated to vote than the disparate tribes of the Democrat Party.
America’s irreconcilable differences are rooted in conflicting priorities of individual rights and providing for the common good. In a healthy democracy the two must be balanced, but radical-right objectivists emphasize the former at the expense of the latter. They believe “the proper moral purpose of one’s life is the pursuit of happiness” and that the only political system consistent with that morality is one that emphasizes individual rights in laissez-faire capitalism.
By way of contrast, political moderates seek to balance individual rights with providing for the common good. The latter is a moral imperative of the Abrahamic religions, and one that requires the regulation of the mega-banks and corporations of Wall Street. Individual rights did not become an integral part of politics in libertarian democracies until the Enlightenment of the 18th century, and have not yet taken hold in Islamic nations where the fundamental freedoms of religion and speech are still denied by apostasy and blasphemy laws.
The objectivism that drives the unrestrained greed of Wall Street and its wonder child, Donald Trump, denies the collective responsibility to provide for the common good. While individual rights that foster free enterprise are essential components of libertarian democracy, so is providing for the common good. Both foster a strong middle class that represents economic opportunity for all, and also provide protection against the ravages of poverty.
The shared political values that made America the Beautiful are derived from the greatest commandment to love God and to love our neighbors as we love ourselves. America is a religious nation, and the greatest commandment is a common word of faith for Jews, Christians and Muslims alike. That love command once crowned our good with brotherhood from sea to shining sea, and confirmed our soul in self-control, and our liberty in law.
How can Americans promote a politics of reconciliation based on altruistic moral principles in a democracy now controlled by self-centered objectivists? It requires reconciliation with those who share political values that balance individual rights with providing for the common good, while rejecting the irreconcilable differences of those who promote objectivist values. It applies the moral imperative of the greatest commandment to politics, and that must be affirmed as an act of faith as well as politics in America’s synagogues, churches and mosques.
In this time of globalization and increased racial and religious pluralism, Americans must recognize that diversity can be our strength rather than our weakness. To make America the Beautiful again we must relate our faith to our politics and collectively love our neighbors—even those of other races and religions—as we love ourselves. That means embracing a politics of inclusion and rejecting a politics of exclusion.
The greatest threat to the U.S. is an “us versus them” mentality toward those who are not like us. Edmund Burke once warned Americans that in a democracy we would forge our own shackles. To avoid that fate and to preserve our union against irreconcilable differences, we must reject politicians who exploit our insecurity and fears. We must seek leaders who promote a politics of reconciliation based on the shared value of loving others as we love ourselves.
On Garrison Keillor’s commentary on how to keep a house divided against itself standing, see https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/trump-voters--its-not-me-its-you/2016/11/21/92d7c884-b005-11e6-be1c-8cec35b1ad25_story.html?wpisrc=nl_opinions&wpmm=1.
On the greatest commandment as a common word of faith for Jews, Christians and Muslims, see http://www.jesusmeetsmuhammad.com/2015/01/jesus-meets-muhammad-is-there-common.html.
On objectivism, see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Objectivism_(Ayn_Rand). On wealth, politics, religion and economic justice, with reference to Ayn Rand’s objectivism, see http://www.jesusmeetsmuhammad.com/2015/03/wealth-politics-religion-and-economic.html. See also Christianity and capitalism: strange bedfellows in politics at http://www.religionlegitimacyandpolitics.com/2016/06/christianity-and-capitalism-strange.html.
On balancing individual rights with providing for the common good, see http://www.jesusmeetsmuhammad.com/2015/08/balancing-individual-rights-with.html.
On the need for a politics of reconciliation in a polarized democracy, see http://www.religionlegitimacyandpolitics.com/2016/10/the-need-for-politics-of-reconciliation.html.
On religion and a politics of reconciliation based on shared values, see http://www.religionlegitimacyandpolitics.com/2016/11/religion-and-politics-of-reconciliation.html.