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.

Reader Discussion

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on September 26, 2018 at 10:02:18 am

Smith is preaching to the wrong choir. Dropping incendiary bombs on Tokyo was an equally uncomfortable match with the best of American thought, yet Japan attacked America (and not only America) and had to be decisively defeated, not compromised with on the basis of conquests Japan had already made. Speaking of which, Smith would have done well to concentrate on another idea of Schmitt's: sovereignty, which he initially defined as the power to decide on the exception but mostly referred to simply as the power to decide.

That is relevant because at the moment we are in a contest over premises, not conclusions. The progressive Left seeks to change the premises from which we reason politically, the commonality of which must underlie any politics of the sort Smith refers to as being civil, (well)mannered and attentive. Far from "depoliticizing" anything, the Left instead is rabidly politicizing the axioms that must first be decided on politically before the kind of moderate classically liberal negotiated compromises by reasonable level-headed persons within a stable institutional structure that Smith (and others) favors can occur.

Sovereignty in Schmitt's telling is not a matter of reason but of will and this necessarily so. That is what is now occurring, a contest of wills. For the progressive Left, the content of their so-called principles is unimportant; that is why they are so brazenly inconsistent and incoherent. No, all that counts is that the principles be other than those undergirding our traditional liberal-constitutional order. It is clear, e.g., that Ocasio-Cortez (and one suspects the same of Bernie Sanders notwithstanding his Soviet honeymoon) has not given even five minutes' thought to the principles of socialism, but that it is merely a ready-to-hand symbol for "us" in the "us versus them" that is the true basis of progressive politics.

As an aside--is Smith really holding up the absence of a Sumnerian caning on the House floor or of a Burr-Hamilton duel as evidence that we are distant from politics as physical combat, when the Left mob just chased Ted Cruz out of a restaurant and GOP Rep Steve Scalise was almost assassinated by a Leftist? How about our US Senators insisting that it is Kavanaugh who must prove his innocence and not Ford who must prove his guilt as evidence of the quality of our current federal officers? I bet Brooks and Sumner would have joined in repudiation of such an attack on our constitutional order, an attack far more pernicious than Brooks' neanderthal assault on Sumner.

Smith ought to attempt to get this article published on Politico or Buzzfeed where it might do some good.

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on September 26, 2018 at 12:36:37 pm

Hypothesis: Conflict is natural, inevitable, and more or less constant. Merely the locus of the conflict changes. The US is currently experiencing a certain level of internal conflict because we CAN--that is, because we're so complacent about external threats, we feel free to invest heavily on our internal disputes. We're like quarreling tenured faculty, feeling no need to exercise restraint or any sense of proportion precisely because so little is at stake for us.

Behold the rise of the dissenters. Even hard-fought social views about race are again open to debate. It's not as if those dissenting views were ever eliminated. But they were treated as sufficiently threatening to the fragile social order--an order which was obsesses with the threat of international communism--as to require suppression. We needed a modicum of unity, or at least a facade of meritocracy, to maintain international alliances. Today, the social order doesn't seem so threatened, and our need for international alliances doesn't seem so pressing.

Want to promote world peace and cooperation? Recall Independence Day: We just need humanity to believe that there is some external existential threat, and we'll see a lot more unity--which, in practice, means a lot more suppression of dissenters.

Once upon a time Catholics and Protestants regarded each other as existential threats, and Jews as simply recalcitrant potential Christians. But today, the Judaeo-Christian world faces greater threats--Islam and atheism. And faced with these threats, religiously-observant (and typically conservative) Catholics, Protestants, and Jews seem to have formed an (unholy?) alliance. But be not fooled: If the threats were to dissipate, I'd expect Catholics, Protestants, and Jews to fall into disputes in no time.

Or think of the quote from Masada: "Do you want to know how to destroy the Jews? Leave them in peace. They'll be at each other's throats soon enough. But as long as we have an enemy, we are brothers."

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on September 26, 2018 at 15:01:28 pm

"“ostensibly neutral domains—religion, culture, education, the economy—"

This does not ring true. Religion, culture, education and the economy are neutral domains on in monocultures. Otherwise they are predictable flash points in diverse cultures.

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on September 26, 2018 at 15:06:28 pm

I envy your world view.

What I see is England in 1641, Germany in 1932 and the USSR in 1990.

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on September 26, 2018 at 15:08:27 pm

on in = only in"

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on September 26, 2018 at 23:16:03 pm


Once again, you are correct in your premises.

We ARE able to have internal conflict becuase we CAN afford to do so, the threat of external annihilation not being quite so imminent as in previous times.


Such a premise, whether correct or not, (intentionally) *spurs* us along a track somewhat different than anticipated:
i'e', the utter lack of moral rectitude, the sleaziness of the attacks by the ever sanctimonious Left.

Yes, we can afford to have conflict!


Can we afford to dispense with all standards of debate and conduct heretofore considered the lingua franca of political suasion?

Can we dispense with all the standards of legal protections hard fought for over one and a half millenia? Can we now accept that, i.e. Kavanaugh "Media Show Trials", a mere accusation, a slander is sufficient to a) win an argument, b) persuade a political faction and c) establish the bona fides of "the usual suspects" as the valian and steadfast defenders of those poor oppressed, beleaguered womenfolk while simultaneuosly expecting that one's own sins will be either forgotten or (more apt) dismissed and forgiven because one's heart is in the right place.
Can we accept the continual degradation of our political process by those who are ostensibly our *Leaders* when in fact they are nothing more than followers, whose "wet fingers" are held to the wind in constant measurement of the opinion polls?

No, nobody, we need not an enemy, for surely they ARE out there, contra John Fugue Kerry, and still intend us harm. No what we need is a re-dedication to those principles and practices that made us successful for over 200 years.


We need elected Representatives that are not afraid to lead but recognize that it is THEIR responsibility, their prime duty to responsibly lead and educate the people rather than follow the rather base instincts of a singularly peculiar mob!

With that I bid you adieu and hope that at long last you may see the value of keeping a bleepin' train on its' proper tracks.

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on September 27, 2018 at 22:29:58 pm


"When elephants fight, it is the grass that suffers."
- African proverb

Can we afford to dispense with all standards of debate and conduct heretofore considered the lingua franca of political suasion?

I think that the answer to this essential question depends on who the word "we" refers to. There most certainly are people who cannot afford for our political players to dispense with all standards of debate and conduct. The fact is that functioning and respected institutions of republican government are essential to the welfare of the most vulnerable and marginalized members of any society. The sociopaths, the corrupt and the powerful can always look after themselves; it is those who require recourse to honorable, trustworthy and legitimate institutions for justice and protection of their rights who cannot afford for those institutions to delegitimize themselves.

When institutions whose claim to legitimacy depend on the perception of being principled, fair, and honorable show themselves willing to engage in smears, dishonesty, intimidation and cynical ploys, there is a universal cost. The legitimacy of the institution is degraded and it is an easy slide to overt corruption. There is nothing more toxic to the welfare of the society, the average citizen, and in particular the most marginalized citizens, than corrupt political institutions. The hysterical, cynical and obsessive efforts to win (win what, exactly, seems to have been lost in the noise) does not only damage political opponents. They ultimately damage the very things that make societies worthwhile.

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on September 27, 2018 at 22:39:59 pm

Oh, and just for the sake of completeness: I'm glad Gorsuch is on the Court; I hope Kavanaugh is confirmed, but I think the Senate Republicans should have explicitly repudiated the "Biden Rule" and given Merrick Garland a hearing.

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on September 27, 2018 at 23:02:54 pm

1) I am ecstatic that Gorsuch is on the court and would be euphoric were Kavanaugh to survive this latest example of politics by carnage from our Democrat 8friends*.

2) What I find sad is that quite often the most marginalized are happily oblivious or unconcerned with the position in which they find themselves consequent to political corruption (as do you, I mean not financial but moral corruption). Equally sad is the passionate disinterest I find to be prevalent among so many of the better situated classes concerning the effects of this corruption of Republican ideals. It is impossible to speak with them without feeling or seeming pedantic - and I have neither the time nor the patience - but I carry on with the task.

3) My own thoughts on Schumer's strategy (for it is HIS and not Feinstein's) is that he needed to provide cover to those who were in contested races in BOTH the Democrat and Republican parties, i.e. McCaskill for the Dems and Murkowski, Collins, Flake, etc and allow them to claim that the charges were so serious and numerous that there must be something to it.
As today's hearing demonstrated , FACTS ARE OF NO CONSEQUENCE - only "Feelings, Feelings, much like a cheap pop song of the early 1970's.

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