Americans Don’t Need a Politics Cleanse

A lot of really smart people have forgotten what politics means amidst today’s political dysfunction. They see it as something unpleasant to engage in only out of necessity. Hence the appeal of Arthur Brooks’ call last summer for all of us to do a politics cleanse. Brooks, the dynamic president of the American Enterprise Institute, recommends that we try giving up politics for two weeks. During that time, we should forgo speaking, reading, or even thinking about the p-word. We need a cleanse, in Brooks’ view, because politics breeds “animus and contempt” in our minds and makes it impossible for us to “disagree about ideas without bitterness.”

There is surely much to dislike in politics at present. And a cleanse offers the opportunity for many to take a much-desired break from it. But to define politics narrowly in this way is to hold it in contempt. Properly understood, politics is not a “bad soap opera” that requires of us no prior experience or knowledge to follow along. It isn’t merely something you do (or watch). Rather, politics is the essential activity that suffuses our lives together. And political activity is the only way we can make common decisions as a self-governing people. It is how we resolve our differences with one another and compromise on the basis of equality. In very literal terms, democratic self-government is impossible when we renounce speaking, reading, and thinking about politics. More broadly, we undermine democratic self-government when we conceive of politics as something about which it is not worth speaking, reading, or even thinking.

So instead of doing a politics cleanse, Americans should go on a bender. That’s what Socrates, the father of Western philosophy, and James Madison, the father of our Constitution, would advise.

For Socrates and Madison, the realms of politics and ideas are inseparable. Politics encompasses the shared space in which our lives unfold in community with others. In Athens, that space was delineated by the boundaries of the polis. And in America, the institutional venues established by the Constitution frame the space where we reconcile rival conceptions of the common good and the ideas underpinning them. A shared space is needed to adjudicate ideas because every citizen both rules and is ruled in democracies and democratic republics like ancient Greece and present-day America. Political speech is vital because rhetoric makes it possible to persuade citizens to abide by the government’s decisions. By renouncing politics, we relinquish our right to participate in that process. And in doing so, we effectively renounce our freedom and civic equality.

Socrates engaged in politics to persuade his interlocutors in the agora of the universal truths, or ideas, inherent in particular propositions. He did so by asking questions to draw out their opinions. Socrates thought political opinions were important because they reflected how different people understood the world around them. He participated in political debate to transcend those different opinions and reveal the ideas underpinning them. Significantly, Socrates did not force his companions to agree with him. Rather, he persuaded them to change their opinion on the basis of equality.

Implicit in the Socratic method is the understanding that opinion can be transformed into truth on the basis of equality by virtue of the illuminating nature of conflict. By marrying thought and action, politics becomes the crucial activity in which the universal reveals itself to human understanding in particular circumstances. Absent politics, there is no other way to do so because only in the political realm is persuasion used to convert opinion into truth. Only by bringing politics and ideas together by means of the Socratic method can we thus reconcile opinion and truth in a manner consistent with democratic self-government, thereby making politics work and making the free society it underpins possible.

Socrates’ method is implicit in Madison’s theory of the extended republic, which contradicts Montesquieu’s understanding of what is required for politics to work. By reformulating the way in which he understood conflict, Madison turned the Montesquieu-inspired conviction of the Anti-Federalists on its head. Whereas they believed that only small republics could work because the absence of difference (i.e. conflict) was necessary to preserve a virtuous republic, Madison argued that the virtuous community on which successful republics must be based is only possible in a large republic with a multitude of conflicting interests. Only in such a republic was it possible for opinion to be transcended and the common good to be made manifest.

Madison, like Socrates before him, understood that knowledge of the common good arises out of the clash of political opinions. Or, as he put it more bluntly in a letter to Thomas Jefferson, “Divide et imperia, the reprobated axiom of tyranny, is under certain qualifications, the only policy by which a republic can be administered on just principles.” To facilitate this process, Madison harnessed political conflict and channeled its energy to constructive purposes by injecting it into the institutional design and operation of the federal government. His expectation was that such conflict would empower citizens to transcend their differences and illuminate the common good and the ideas underpinning it.

By going on a politics bender, Americans can exercise their self-governing muscles that have atrophied in recent years. The best place to start is at the family dinner table and around the office watercooler. After all, if we can’t discuss our views with one another in such informal settings, what makes us think our elected representatives will be able to do so in Congress. Relearning how to maintain one’s self-respect while simultaneously respecting one’s interlocutors is critical to disagreeing with grace and goodwill. Embarking on a politics bender is the first step in destigmatizing this absolutely essential activity.

Curing the dysfunction Brooks rightly identifies ultimately requires improving our ability to communicate across our differences. Yet doing so first requires that we acknowledge that those differences exist and that the mere condition of disagreement and conflict does not disqualify those with whom we disagree from participating in the act of self-government. If anything, our differences require it.

As long as people with different beliefs participate in politics on the basis of civic equality, political activity will always generate disagreement and conflict. Abandoning politics permanently in the face of that conflict, however distasteful it may be, precludes us from using persuasion, negotiation, and compromise to resolve our disagreements. And it resigns us to an endless struggle in which not all Americans, only those with the most force, rule.