Politics in a Post-Modern Republic

What is the cause of our polarized politics?  Some blame one party or the other, and that is certainly plausible.  But I wonder if the problem goes deeper.  Our two parties are fighting for the future.   We are polarized because we disagree about what it would mean to make America better.  Beyond that, the arguments are so extreme because in our post-modern age we cannot agree about what it means to be reasonable.

This idea occurred to me at a conference I recently attended at NYU’s Brennan Center.  The conference was on the Second AmendmentSenator Chris Murphy of Connecticut gave the keynote. His comments help us understand how polarized our politics have become, and why, alas, that may not change soon.

Senator Murphy opened his talk by noting that Democrats and Republicans are having different conversations about guns.  Given that start, I was looking forward to a talk that described the two conversations—their premises, logic, favorite bits of evidence, etc.—and then suggested how the two sides might be draws closer together.  Boy, I was mistaken.  What followed was a hyperpartisan rant.

After noting that polls show that 80% of the public approves background checks, why, he asked, does Congress not do what the people want?  His answer?  The Republicans are now “a neo-anarchist party.”  In a world of economic anxiety, he noted, people are looking for someone or something to blame.  Essentially he agrees with President Obama that “they cling to their guns and religion.” The Republicans, he suggested, conduct an “all out, no holds barred, assault on government.”  Meanwhile, the gun industry and the NRA “create paranoia about government that helps to create gun sales.”

Ultimately, he suggested that “Republicans need to come down from the clouds,” and he thinks that the Democrats must “help them solve their own problems.”  That this extreme, perhaps even paranoid analysis was delivered in a mild, collegial voice reminds us about how important it is to look past tone to content.  It also demonstrates how polarized Washington is nowadays.  If that’s how Senator Murphy understands Republicans, why would they even bother talking to him?   Nay, why is it reasonable to expect that any common ground could be found?

It is possible that Senator Murphy is being shrewd.  The most effective demagogue is one who seems not to be one.  He knows that compromises with the Republicans can be had, but they would not suit his agenda, and he might open himself to a primary challenge—as is happening now on the Democrat side in Maryland over compromise on the gun issue.  But I think he really believes what he says.

Senator Murphy was speaking at a conference at NYU’s Brennan Center, not exactly a place full of NRA supporters.   The law professors in the audience actually seemed to be more moderate and more open to compromise than the Senator. They asked about some specific compromises.  Why not, for example, trade “Constitutional Carry” for more background checks, one audience member asked?  Murphy’s answer was puzzling. He said that the bill he supports is already a compromise.  Why, he asked, should he compromise more?  But why were his compromises reasonable, and more compromises not reasonable? He did not say.  He sounded like he was not even capable of understanding such a question.

At the moment, licensed gun dealers must conduct background checks before all sales, even at gun shows.  Gun collectors are not required to do so.  Roughly 80% of sales have background checks under current law.  The law Murphy supports would require background checks on almost all sales—except from, for example, father to son.  If getting the background check number close to 100% is so important, why not trade it for something the GOP wants?  Or, why not close the “loophole” further, but still allow, for example, a citizen to send a single gun to a friend without a check?  I rather doubt that 80% of the public wants a law as extreme as Senator Murphy supports.  (And recall in this context that “loophole” is itself a partisan term.  It implies that the normal course of things is for all transactions to be subject to regulation, and when one is not so subject it is an exception—that is not the only way to see it).

Senator Murphy was also asked about Senator Coburn’s proposed amendment to the bill that would have required background checks, but would have allowed individuals to undergo a background check on their own, and, after the check, the individual would receive a certificate and a code number that allowed him to purchase a gun in the next 30 days.  The proponents of gun control did not like that approach.  Logistically it would be difficult, but as USA Today notes, “Another problem for gun control advocates: There would be no lasting record of the sale.”  Senator Murphy, again, said that he had already compromised in the bill he supported, and he saw no reason to accept further compromise.  Why not?

If the Republicans truly are “anarchists,” then they would, in fact, reject the compromises mentioned by the audience.  Why not, therefore, give the GOP a chance to prove just how unwilling to compromise they are?

The trouble is not that compromise is impossible, but that the compromises that could pass are not, in fact, acceptable.  The distance between the parties is too great. It might also be that, as we delegate more and more legislative authority to the administrative bureaucracy in the executive branch we are creating legislators who are less skilled in the art of compromise, and have a weaker understanding of what it would entail.  I am reminded of then Senator Obama’s comment, “you have to be the one who’s dictating how the compromises work.”  That sounds more like the attitude of an activist community organizer than it does the guy we the people have hired to do the people’s business.  And, it is unlikely to lead to moderation on either side.  And it might be that the incentives in our system favor ranting over legislating—perhaps, in part, an effect of the transfer of so much law writing to the administrative branch.

Beyond that, we now have parties that are more unified in matters of principle than we used to have.  That means that each side is fighting not for a particular bill, but instead is trying to line up future bills.  Recall in this context that State Senator Obama opposed a law securing the right to life of a child who had survived an abortion attempt?  As a lawyer, he understood that such a law might establish a precedent that the baby was, in fact, a person entitled to constitutional protection even before it is born—they very thing that the abortion rights side denies, and the very thing that some pro-lifers wished to establish in the bill.  That might be behind Senator Murphy’s opposition to the Coburn amendment.  It allows all the gun checks Murphy wants, but it would also, by not keeping a record of all sales, move policy away from gun registration, and perhaps ultimately, gun confiscation.  The fight over Obamacare was similar.  Had President Obama wanted, he could easily have gotten a bunch of GOP votes for a bill that solves the pre-existing condition problem and added 10 million people to the health insurance roles—essentially what Obamacare did.  But to get GOP votes, he would have had to jettison the structure of Obamacare, which steers American health care in the direction of single payer, President Obama’s favored policy.

Similarly, given the contrast between the language the Left uses to describe the evils of guns in society and how little the proposed laws would, in fact, do to reduce gun violence, it is not unreasonable to conclude that the goal (or perhaps merely the telos) is confiscation—for no other solution would, as a practical matter, achieve the goals that the rhetoric demands.  (And in a country like the U.S. it is probable that even that would not work).

The gulf between the sides in this debate makes me wonder if our political culture is dividing because common ground is disappearing.  Consider “Stand Your Ground” laws.  It is no surprise that they came up at one of the panels in a conference on the Second Amendment.  These laws, as I understand them, were created because many Americans thought that legislatures and courts had narrowed the cases in which a citizen was allowed to use force too much.  These bills tried to restore the traditional “reasonable man” standard.  But in an era of post-modernism, and in an era in which what it means to be human is up for discussion, can there be such a standard?  Absent agreement about such things, more generally, is any moderate politics possible?  If we cannot even agree upon who is a male and who is a female, I fear that the answer is no.  We cannot recognize what a reasonable man standard is when we do not agree about what reason is.  Similarly, it is difficult to have a politics based upon the rights of men when we do not agree about what it means to be human.

Reader Discussion

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on June 02, 2016 at 08:29:15 am

A "reasonable man" standard only worked when there was in fact a social consensus on what constituted a "reasonable" response in a given situation. Courts seemed to form that standard out of their "common" experience rather than from some critical theory learned in law school. All that is passe in this post-modern epoch of "privilege" where "the law" as our President sees it or as seen by the political elite “you have to be the one who’s dictating how the compromises work.” "Dictating compromise"--it doesn't get much more Orwellian than that. The written constitution is dead. Long live the "living" constitution and long live we Progressives who dictate how it works--or so they seem to believe and say.

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Derek Simmons
on June 02, 2016 at 13:30:39 pm

I find it difficult to credit Mr. Samuelson's illustrative example about our political polarization because it makes no mention of one of the principal promoters of it -- the traditional news media. Yes, I know, I read the same opinion polls about the public's appreciation for their undeniable bias. Nevertheless, you cannot tell me that the public fully understand just how much traditional media have skewed our political discussions on every issue of any political import. Their performance is most definitely not reflect our polarization; it causes it. Their ideological orientation will permit them to do nothing else. As a conservative who has seen his principles and views continually caricatured and mocked in "news" reports for the last 40 years, I contend that anyone who comments on our political polarization should, at the very least, include a general nod in this direction.

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Robert Steckel
on June 02, 2016 at 15:25:51 pm

I'm sure there are many forces pushing us to a greater partisan divide. At the top of the list of primary causes I would put Duverger's Law, advances in social engineering, and the need of candidates for political protection.

Duverger described how plurality voting, which is the method we generally use, tends to create a two party system. Political scientists who study voting methods generally recognize that our method is one of the worst to use for getting opinions that closely represent the opinion of the majority.

Advances in social engineering are bucked up by advances in technology. I was the first person (that I know of) to blog about how professionals were on the Internet trying to change public opinion by injecting themselves into public discussions (the Soro propaganda factory that got going in 2008-2009). Today social engineering is taken as a given in political dialogue.

The modern problem in the Senate began with the flaw in the original method of appointing senators. It left them as sitting ducks. The public could attack the senators with false accusations and there was nothing the senators could do. By making the Senate populist the senators could at least get support from the voting majority in their state, which cut down the number of attacks and created a base of partisans who would defend the senator.

I would also add to the top of my list the problem of open sessions (at least in the Senate). Congress tries to fix problems of appearances by pushing for greater transparency. There was one push in the 1940's (I believe) and another in 1970. The theory was that if everything the senators and representatives did was made public, a lot of corruption would go away (and Congress would have more political power to counter the growing power of the president). What actually happened is that by making public the individual votes and policy making activities the congressmen became subjected to the carrot and the stick for everything they did. Whoever has the most carrots and the biggest stick can exert a great amount of influence over each congressman. Among the persons with such power are the partisan leaders. So the attempts at reform through transparency actually corrupted the integrity of the congressmen and drove a wedge between themselves, their constituents and the consciences, and drove them into the powerful and controlling arms of the party leadership.

To fix the problem discussed in the OP it would be useful to change the things I described above (and similar things I know the readers here could add to that list). But to do so requires acts of Congress. Perhaps even a constitutional amendment or two. So first Congress needs to get on board. But there's the rub.

What would it take to motivate either house of Congress to take up meaningful reforms?

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Scott Amorian
on June 02, 2016 at 17:09:15 pm

On polarization:

1. Disagreement is normal. Arguably, we should expect vociferous disagreement in a healthy democracy.

Where do we find periods of national unity? During emergencies – and then, we often take actions that we regret in hindsight. In their book It’s Even Worse Than It Looks, Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein document how polarization has grown, and in which directions. Since publication, Ornstein has toured the country bemoaning gridlock. In contrast, Mann has noted that when we last transcended gridlock was following 9/11, when Congress approved the invasion of Iraq and passed the Patriot Act. Should we look back upon those days as some kind of golden age of governance? Oh, what we wouldn’t have given for just a little more gridlock….

Moreover, we should expect political parties to split roughly 50-50 around many issues. After all, a party that constantly advocated positions that could not command popular support would cease to be a political party, and would become a sect (e.g., the Libertarian Party).

Racial segregation used to be an express part of the Democratic Party platform. Mid-century the Democrats ejected it and the Republicans, with Nixon’s Southern Strategy, implicitly took it onboard. But racism has been gradually dying out there, too; it was no longer a policy that could command the assent of a sufficiently large portion of the population. True, Donald Trump has dusted it off and is taking it out for a last hurrah. But I suspect that the next candidate to challenge the Democrats in a presidential race will pander to Hispanics. A candidate that doesn’t do that won’t be able to win – and if you can’t win, why bother running? We’re back in Libertarian Party territory.

2. That said, we are in are era in which unions are dying out everywhere – except in government. And nowhere is this clearer than in legislatures, where party unity has become the paramount tactic. Voters do not reward politicians for “reasonableness,” but for doctrinal purity.

Reasoned debate is something that can occur between people who can listen to each other, learn, and evolve in their thinking. The irony is that today, as Scott Amorian observes, politicians are arguably more responsive to voters than ever. Consequently the nation has never been closer to enjoying direct democracy – with all the benefits and burdens this entails. It’s simply impossible to have a reasoned debate among 300 million + citizens. And thus, we don’t. Reasoned debate is pretty much dead. Politicians identify the views of their constituents (including donors), and battle to promote those views. There’s little point in discussing compromise, because there’s no mechanism by which voters give politicians a scope of negotiating room. For today's legislator, losing an issue is preferable to compromise because the losing politician still retains the all-important ability to blame any less-than-ideal outcomes on someone else.

Thus, while disagreement is normal, arguably polarization is not.

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on June 02, 2016 at 17:09:51 pm

Consider “Stand Your Ground” laws. It is no surprise that they came up at one of the panels in a conference on the Second Amendment. These laws, as I understand them, were created because many Americans thought that legislatures and courts had narrowed the cases in which a citizen was allowed to use force too much. These bills tried to restore the traditional “reasonable man” standard. But in an era of post-modernism, and in an era in which what it means to be human is up for discussion, can there be such a standard?

How would questions about “what it means to be human” influence the application of a Stand Your Ground law? Is Samuelson imaging fetuses wielding firearms?

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on June 02, 2016 at 17:16:15 pm

Professor Samuelson was naive in expecting anything other than what occurred at the Brennan Center.

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on June 02, 2016 at 17:27:19 pm

Partition of the country, IMHO, is the least violent way forward. Not necessarily the best, but certainly the least violent.

Split the country in two, give everyone 5 years to decide where they want to live, and then put up the walls.

It won't take very long to discover whose values produce the wealthiest and healthiest society.

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Calisse Tabarnac
on June 02, 2016 at 22:44:37 pm

The mainstream media is an affiliate of the Democrat Party:

1. Of the 71 members of the White House press corps, all are Democrats.

2. During the presidential debates, less than 5% of journalists paused and paid attention when the national flag was played.

3. Networks routinely employ Democrat operatives or their relatives. ABC has George Stephanopoulos, NBC has Chris Matthews and Chuck Todd, and so on.

Trump won the Republican primaries mostly because of his success fighting the mainstream media, and political correctness.

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Ed Vidal
on June 03, 2016 at 04:39:50 am

Calisse Tabarnac is correct: partition the USA into the USSA and the Patriotic USA.
That is the only way forward and out of this impasse of irreconcilables.

Civil war is the other outcome, but who here would welcome this? No one.

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on June 03, 2016 at 04:57:58 am

Please, please enough of this hoary old canard about the infamous Southern Strategy, where by the evil racist Democratic Party, still the Party of the Democratic Plantation and cities that look more like Berlin in 1945 than the rest of America, was magically transormed into a party of Progressive Utopians.

This pernicious lie is that suddently, apparently in 1968, all in a single leap, in one of those Star Trek mind melds, the GOP, the party that ended slavery and gave blacks the vote magically inherited the Democrats legacy of the Klu Klux Klan, Lester Maddox and that true champion of the black man, Robert C. Byrd ("I shall never fight in the armed forces with a negro by my side ... Rather I should die a thousand times, and see Old Glory trampled in the dirt never to rise again, than to see this beloved land of ours become degraded by race mongrels, a throwback to the blackest specimen from the wilds."). Now, the racist, inhuman narcissist Senator Byrd, the Senate's Grand Klegle and Chief Beelzebub remained a proud Democrat for the rest of his days and everywhere I drive in West Virginia, I see his evil name.

Voila, in 1968 the dispicable evil history of the party of lynchings, terrorism, murder, Jim Crow and segregation was absolved of its sins all because of the ravings of Kevin Phillips. Yes, when the anti-American demonstrators were rioting in the streets, after city after city, usually run by Democrats has race riots, and afte LBJ withdrew and RFK had been murdered, leaving the Democrats in disarray, the GOP took the White House and the mighty Southern Strategy earned Nixon about 57 electoral votes in the old South. It was in fact George C. Wallace, a Democrat turned Independent who won 44 electoral votes on a Segregationist platform, with the indent and unpopular Democrat, Sen. Humphrey taking Texas. Then, as the New Left, the modern Progressive wing of the Democrats, the totalitarian wing, captured the Democratic Party and McGovern was their candidate (whose legacy is the "Super Delegates") running against a paranoid, but he was so out of touch that he lost in one of the great landslides in history. However, Jimmy Carter, an unknown Southerner won just four years later.

In reality, the South went over to the GOP, the stupid rather than evil party, as Segregation and Jim Crow were vanquished, destroyed by an alliance of the GOP and Northern Democrats and vociferously opposed by Southern Democrats, which is of course what gave you Wallace in 1968. The GOP won the South gradually as racism, institutional, overt racism at least, disappeared in the rear view mirror and the change was gradual, very gradual. Senate and House seats and Governorships all shifted gradually, as the South became a better place for everyone, a more successful, more integrated region.

No, the idea of the great shift, the Magical Realism of the Democrat's feverish dreams, the trade of evil for a fresh new party is a myth, invented so that the Democrats could fool people into thinking they were not the party of Segregation, Lynching, Murder, Terrorism, the Klu Klux Klan, the Tulsa Massacre, Woodrow Wilson and the segregation of the federal government and now, the party of enforced dependency, noxious but expensive schools and bombed out ghettos. Evil, resolute, horned-headed Mephistopheles, thy name is Democrat! Please peddle this noxious swill elsewhere and except your true legacy as a racist monster, the proud heir to Sanger, Wilson, Maddox, Faubus and Byrd.

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Jonathan Swift Junior
on June 03, 2016 at 05:01:17 am

Yes, that is the only thing that will work now, to avoid bloodshed. However, the Democrats want everyone's money, so it is not likely to happen bloodlessly.

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Jonathan Swift Junior
on June 03, 2016 at 09:33:14 am

Yes, that is the only thing that will work now, to avoid bloodshed. However, the Democrats want everyone’s money, so it is not likely to happen bloodlessly.

I'd be interested in 1) hearing proposals for which states would go into which nations, and 2) seeing which states are currently net recipients of federal dollars, and which are net contributors. That might provide a real measure of who is taking the money. Democrats favor tax-and-spend policies; Republicans favor spend-and-spend policies.

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on June 03, 2016 at 09:49:17 am


Would you stop with this "Nixon southern Strategy" fiction and the typical Progressive attempt to characterize it as evidence of the GOP's racism. As Mr. Johnathan Swift makes plain, the entire argument is specious.

As i have previously indicated, AFTER the Southern Strategy, the south became MORE liberal - not more racist - as was the case under centuries of Democrat rule. In fact, one ought to checjk the voting records for the various civil rights Bills of that era. One will find that these bills were passed with GOP support AND at far higher levels than Democrat support.

Moreover, having lived through those times, and in my own modest way being involved, I can assure you that the perception of people was that it was not civil rights gains that caused the "switch" to GOP in the South (and it was nowhere near as extensive of a shift as you pretend); rather, it was Law and Order. Recall, the recent posts by McGinnis and Rappaport regarding culture and conditions at Ivy League schools in the 80's. If one thinks that was bad, you should have seen it in the late '60's when each week a new school was taken over by lefties, when riots were not an uncommon event, etc. etc.
Stop using the typical Proggie *re-casting* of history to advance your false arguments.

It does a disservice to your otherwise fine posts.

And as an aside, the Democrat Party continues to this day, to base its coalition-building on RACE. It is no longer true that *to divide and conquer* is the best strategy; no, nowadays, it is "divide and AGGREGATE* This is the current modus operandi of the Democrat Party. I would contend that it is even more invidious that the former practice as it has completely segmented the population.
But then again, the dopey Dems are all about electoral power - nothing more. I suppose that excuses their vicious undermining of the republic.

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on June 03, 2016 at 11:22:55 am

Look, I guess different people can look at the facts and draw different conclusions about the Southern Strategy. I share the conclusions of the chair of the Republican National Committee. You’re free to draw different ones.

I said --

Racial segregation used to be an express part of the Democratic Party platform. Mid-century the Democrats ejected it and the Republicans, with Nixon’s Southern Strategy, implicitly took it onboard. But racism has been gradually dying out there, too; it was no longer a policy that could command the assent of a sufficiently large portion of the population.

It is unclear to me what aspect of this statement Jonathan Swift Junior or gabe disagree with. As far as I can tell, JSJ merely argues that the transition occurred more gradually, and that history is more complicated than is reflected in my four lines of text. Fair enough. I’d even go so far as to suggest that history is more complicated than is revealed in JSJ’s text. Nevertheless, I do not see that JSJ denies the thesis that Republicans exploited racism in seeking to gain votes in the South.

JSJ quotes Robert Byrd, a long-time Democrat, making a racist remark -- in 1945. How he believes that undermines my thesis about Nixon’s Southern Strategy, initiated around 1968, I can’t imagine. I suppose I could quote Strom Thurmond, a racist Democrat who, when the South joined the Republican Party, became a Republican without renouncing all his racist views. Or quote Trent Lott, the Republican leader who as recently as 2002 said that he wished Thurman had been president. But to what purpose?

Gabe argues that the South became less racist over time, including during periods in which the Republican Party was in control. Great. See where I said, “racism has been gradually dying out there, too; it was no longer a policy that could command the assent of a sufficiently large portion of the population”? What part of that statement do you disagree with?

Again, here’s my thesis: Disagreement is normal, and we should expect gridlock because we should expect political parties to gradually shed positions that cannot command at least 50% of the public’s support. And to illustrate this point, I identified racist appeals as a policy that, at one time under both Democratic and Republican control, could command majority support, but no longer can.

If either JSJ or gabe really with to dispute this thesis, I’m happy to oblige.

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on June 04, 2016 at 10:45:00 am

Yes, but nobody wants to (insert) assert the same old (false) charge that the GOP assumed the role of protector of southern racists. Yet, nobody MUST acknowledge that based upon voting record, the Democrats continued to lag behind the GOP in terms of support for civil rights.

Additionally, the affirmative response to Nixon's southern Strategy was due, not to latent racist inclinations of voters, but rather to a rather pronounced anxiety over "law and Order" issues - i.e., drugs, campus violence, riots (not just in urban ghettos), Vietnam, etc.

While it is true that to some extent BOTH parties employed racist appeals, it is clear that the Democrat Party deployed racist tactics and policies. I'll not rehash history going back to Woodie Wilson and FDR (remember his refusal to back anti-lynching laws); but to assert that GOP *practices* were on a par with the Democrats is to entirely corrupt history.

Let us be honest about this: "Southern Strategy" is a rhetorical *tool* employed by the Left to deflect the view AWAY from the Democrats historical sins and to project these sins upon the GOP, who may not have had the most (current?) progressive views on race, clearly did not build their new coalition upon the old racist narrative. Again, look to the historical voting records.

I always get a kick out of Al Gore claiming that he and his family always supported civil rights. The record shows that his father voted against this legislation. Yet, he, like nobody, advances the charge that the GOP is actually the racist in the henhouse.

C'mon, nobody. You can do better!

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on June 04, 2016 at 11:14:11 am

While it is true that to some extent BOTH parties employed racist appeals....

Gabe, that statement concedes the argument.

I'm coming to appreciate that perhaps Republicans are more sensitive to the racist label than I realized. But sensitive or not, both parties employed racist appeals -- and both parties have transitioned away from them as they have proven less viable. I don't see any point in denying it.

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on June 04, 2016 at 12:19:22 pm


Fair enough - BUT my point was that there exists a quite considerable difference between atavistic or patronizing attitudes concerning race AND beastly inhumane practices as advanced by the Democrat Party. all too often we use the same brush to color different textures. It is, to my mind, a convenient rhetorical device to malign an opponent - in this case the GOP by equating their somewhat (contemporaneous) patronizing attitude with the destructive practices of the racist Democrat south.

Let us try to be a tad bit more granular in our analysis.

In any event, it is a good thing things have changed.

take care

an overgrown lawn awaits my tender ministrations!

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on June 04, 2016 at 16:40:00 pm

do like the last sentence!

Wonder, what do the people actually prefer? - and can this confusion among the people, if confusion it be, be the cause of the rather distinct political environment we are currently experiencing.

Our politicos are not stupid, nor are they insensitive to the somewhat vague and ever-shifting avowed preferences of the citizenry. It may only be a question of which segment in our overly (and consciously planned) segmented society, each particular party listens to. This seemed to work for a while.
Apparently, confusion within the various electoral segments has caused all manner of havoc with the end result that we now are presented with a choice between a corrupt Fat Lady in a Pantsuit and a sleazy wheeler-dealer with atrocious hair.

A write-in for my little Chocolate Labrador ain't looking all that bad, after all!
Heck, nobody, I may even vote for one of your pets!

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