Are We Living in Carl Schmitt’s America?

Even by the impoverished standards we live by these days, Judge Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation hearings will likely remain the low point of an already dispiriting political culture for some time. Public displays of rancor and enmity like this haven’t often been seen since the Election of 1800. It may not be unprecedented, but these are bad times for principled, decent politics. What explains it?

In The Concept of the Political, Carl Schmitt famously defined the political sphere as that place where friend and enemy struggle for dominance over their polities. We needn’t hate our enemies – though that is certainly possible – yet, all of the gentle veneers we paint over the essence of the political are distractions from its core content. He tells us that:

Political thought and political instinct prove themselves theoretically and practically in the ability to distinguish friend and enemy. The high points of politics are simultaneously the moments in which the enemy is, in concrete clarity, recognized as the enemy.

Schmitt says that states presuppose the existence of politics, but the modern liberal democratic world engages in a constant mixing up of political and social content, such that “ostensibly neutral domains—religion, culture, education, the economy—then cease to be neutral in the sense that they do not pertain to state and to politics,” with the end result that we create “total states” that make everything political, and demand “state control of the individual.” For Schmitt, political things are distinctively oppositional, not harmonizing.

Emotionally the enemy is easily treated as being evil and ugly, because every distinction, most of all the political, as the strongest and most intense of the distinctions and categories, draws upon other distinctions for support.

Thus: the personal is the political, and it is all too easy to line up children of the light and children of darkness, with no middle ground between.

There are good reasons to disagree with Schmitt’s underlying position here, not least his contention that it is the friend-enemy relation that most completely distinguishes politics from other areas of life. His dismissal of natural law and reason as possible bases of politics makes him an uncomfortable match with the best of American thought, and his elevation of Hobbesian cynicism about human motives is probably incompatible with republican self-government.

However, none of that is to say that we cannot turn to Schmitt for insight into the way partisan politics so often devolves into a cold or hot civil war. Much of Schmitt’s account of what democracy is doing to politics flows from a kind of humanitarian universalism, a view that embraces the essential benevolence and goodness of mankind and that believes in the possibility of infinite progress.

Such a view of political life creates dogmatists who cannot simply accept they will always have opponents, and so, instead of accepting a rich public space with many opinions, instead see them as enemies of all humanity. It is because of this element that Schmitt argues that modern liberals’ tendency to end discussion or foreclose dissent on certain issues – to “depoliticize” them – is actually one of the reasons ideological hate grows. And this may well be one of the tendencies that is fueling populism in the U.S. and Europe: many people acutely feel their cherished views (just or not) being excluded from public life and turn to whomever will protect them.

Consistently liberal thinkers usually do not deny the state its legitimate power and authority, but in general, they seek to constrain state powers to certain areas. What differentiates classical versus modern liberals has more to do with where they see the greatest need for constraining state power: in economics or in the private lives of citizens. For Schmitt, this really mean that liberal thinkers “attempted only to tie the political to the ethical and subjugate it to economics.”

Schmitt contends that constitutions and limitations on power aren’t ever quite real because they deny the essential dangerousness of the human condition. Once you do that, what’s left is simply an understanding of politics focused on who gets power—who gets to decide essentially contentious matters. In this Schmitt follows a long tradition of thought that suggests that politics can never be self-limited, and that it exists in its purest form in the hearts and minds of those with the power of decision making.

Consider the possibility that Schmitt is half-right. Human nature being what it is, we find it easy to slide into a political order driven entirely by the friend-enemy distinction. That is, one whose dynamics that Schmitt seems an especially apt diagnostician.

Natural law defenses of constitutional republicanism are consistent in the way they emphasize the fragility of political order. In fact, it’s all too common for such regimes like ours to be so confident of their resiliency that the citizenry isn’t aware of how even a regime built on self-evident truths requires citizens that are willing to defend the logic that flows from those same truths. A consequence of this is that only a careful maintenance of certain sorts of civility, manners, and attention to political forms and procedures is what keeps Schmitt’s world at bay.

Seen from this point of view, it might be clearer, too, that politics becomes more “Schmittian” whenever consensus about the status and direction of the American order recedes as well. Looking at the history of American politics with this in mind, one can see these practices ebb and flow over time. Things could certainly be better, but they could also be worse. Our politics may be vicious, but our politicians do not brawl on the floor of the House of Representatives, nor do they kill one another in duels. And yet, we should be mindful that traditions and norms lost are almost impossible to restore. Rather, they must be reimagined completely and given new justifications and moral force.

Whether Judge Kavanaugh is confirmed or not in the coming weeks, it seems inevitable that our politics will grow more warlike. We should be mindful of what is lost when a politics of enmity becomes our way of life.