To unite a divided house, you must first understand what divides it

I've blogged before about Unite America (then called The Centrist Project), the movement to promote civility in our culture and politics and to fight the polarization which seems to doom us to careening wildly back and forth between the extremes, logic cast aside in favor of ideology and common sense in favor of pleasing whichever rabid, crazy "base" happens to be in power at the time.

There is no cause which I think more worthy. I do not believe that a house divided can stand any longer today than when Lincoln invoked the biblical metaphor to describe the condition of America on the eve of the Civil War. If we are to survive as a free people, capable of governing ourselves, we have to learn to put country ahead of party and to listen more and scream at each other less.

But my misgivings about Unite America have always centered on its lack of a sound theoretical base. One cannot fight ideologies run amok without answers to what those ideologies assert. I've blogged before about those misgivings, and how the writings of Charles Wheelan (founder of the movement known then as The Centrist Project and now as Unite America) seem to indicate the absence of any philosophical basis other than the lowest common denominator. What especially bothered me is his apparent dismissal of an idea basic even to Deist Thomas Jefferson and his freethinking fellow Founders: the idea that rights and freedoms have their origin in God. As I said at the time, I might be misreading him, but he seems to me to miss a point which history makes crystal clear: that the source of our rights as human beings is either transcendental- from an authority greater than and superior in every way to government- or they are merely the gift of the government itself. Only if they have their origin in "nature and nature's God" are they rights at all; if they merely are granted us by the government- if Mao was right, and power grows out of the barrel of a gun- then they are merely privileges, which can be withdrawn at any moment by the government which granted them.

Whether in the Chinese concept of the "mandate of heaven" or the European idea of the divine right of kings, the second option has dominated history. That should not be surprising. Everywhere throughout the human story, we have seen the strong decide what rights the weak might have.  Whether or not might makes right, nearly every society that has ever existed has embraced what seems to be the self-evident concept that might makes rights.

Perhaps it's ironic that it was the Enlightenment which broke with this idea and suggested rather that human rights are inherent- that they belong to the very nature of the human condition, and thus are not merely on temporary loan from governments to their subjects, but truly rights which no government has either the right or the authority to take away. Doubtless, the Enlightenment would have preferred to appeal to some abstract law of nature. But that would be a difficult concept to sell; after all, everywhere the human experience throughout history seems to teach the opposite lesson. So it was necessary even for Jefferson to appeal instead to "nature and nature's God." Wheelan seems to miss the point that more than religion is involved here; that removing a god- however theoretical and vague- from the equation undercuts the entire idea that human rights are anything but privileges which flow from the generosity of whatever government happens to be in power.

Today, I received an email from Unite America which underscores a second problem. It read,

Robert --

Today, President Trump is set to make his second nomination to fill a vacancy on the Supreme Court of the United States. But we’ve seen this play before.

Republicans are demanding a nominee that will placate “the base.”

Democrats -- determined to “resist” -- will dismiss any nominee out of hand.

With near-certainty, today’s nomination will make America become more divided along tribal, partisan lines.

But it doesn’t have to be this way. There’s another path forward if the president is bold enough to take it.

Add your name and tell President Trump to nominate a Supreme Court Justice who will unite America!

In the past, Supreme Court nominations were an opportunity to bring Americans together -- united by our common values and unified in upholding our constitution. Six of the nine current members of the Court were confirmed with more than sixty votes in the Senate. In fact, Justice Kennedy -- whose retirement is causing the current vacancy -- was confirmed by an almost unimaginable vote of 97-0!

Our constitutional principles stand above partisan politics, which is why it’s essential that Supreme Court Justices garner support from both parties. While it’s unlikely that any nominee would receive 97 votes in this intensely partisan and divisive era, President Trump can and should strive to choose a nominee who will achieve broad support and unite Americans -- not divide them.

If you agree that Americans deserve a non-partisan Supreme Court they can trust and a nominee who can get sixty votes in the Senate, add your name:

Thank you.

-- The Unite America Team

The problem is that whoever wrote that email completely misunderstands the nature of our divisions.  Any Supreme Court nomination the president makes will divide Americans precisely because we disagree about what the Constitution is about and how it should be interpreted. It seems incredible to me that Unite American could miss that point.

We do not share "common values." We are not, in fact, unified by upholding the Constitution, but ironically divided not least by a common determination to do so.

It should be granted from the start that today a frightening percentage of those on both the extreme right and the extreme left are either ignorant of the values embedded in the Constitution or hold them in contempt- or both. If you doubt that, try expressing peaceful and civil dissent either at a Trump rally or on an American university campus!

But beyond that, those of us who do revere the Constitution are divided by two conflicting understandings of it. The left holds to an expansionist, "living Constitution" view which has been expressed over the years in Supreme Court decisions such as Roe v. Wade and Obergefell v. Hodges, in which the Court made far-ranging decisions based on what a majority thought was implied by the Constitution rather than on what the document actually says. The right holds to the "originalist" view that what the Constitution requires must be decided by a strict reading of what the words actually say, and that a "living Constitution" is a dead letter because it effectively makes the preferences of the justices, rather than the document that goes by that name, the real American constitution.

And these two opposite and mutually-exclusive understandings of the proper relationship between the Constitution and the court is the source of whatever division the president's nomination today is going to produce. Yes, it's certainly the case that in the past, when such a fundamental disagreement did not divide us, nominations were usually relatively uncontroversial and were often unanimously confirmed by the Senate. But the whole problem United America exists to address is that we no longer live in a country in which such a thing is even possible.

The position on abortion which Dr. Wheelan embraces in The Centrist Manifesto reflects the same problem. Essentially, that position is Bill Clinton: that abortion should be safe, legal, and rare. Now, while it's perfectly true that there is no reason why pro-choice and pro-life Americans should, despite their disagreements, be unable to find common ground in the quest to make abortion rare, only the most inconsistent and perhaps even depraved of human beings could simultaneously believe that a fetus is a human person entitled to the protections of the Constitution and go along with the idea that abortion should be legal at all except in presence, say, of a dire threat to the life of the mother.

I part company from some of my fellow pro-lifers in that if I were offered the opportunity to outlaw abortion except in cases, for example, of rape, incest, and a threat to the life of the mother, I would leap at the chance to instantly eliminate 98% of the abortions committed in America while continuing to argue that the other two percent cannot be philosophically defended. We can debate the matter of the two percent later; right now, I believe that it would be morally irresponsible not to stop 98% of them when the alternative is the status quo.

A pragmatic compromise in which at least progress is made while the debate continues is one thing. But no solution which requires either side to give up its principles is going to unite anybody. Nor is it going to succeed in a society as deeply divided as ours. Pragmatic compromises on matters of legislation are fine and dandy, and may well have their place. But I don't think the Unite America movement understands that our common commitment to the Constitution as we understand it is precisely what divides us. Pragmatic compromises are possible; compromises of principle aren't. And I don't think the Unite America moment understands the difference between the two.

That's why my ongoing efforts will be centered on Evan McMullin's Stand Up Republic, rather than Unite America. To a considerable extent, we are a nation dying of a lack of principles. We are also dying of what seems to be an impassable gulf between our principles.

The solution is not to give up our principles, but to dialog with each other, understand our disagreements in the most generous possible way, try to draw those principles closer together, and to stop screaming at each other and calling each other names. We might also pay closer attention to actual facts, and less to what our personal ideologies tell us that the facts ought to be.

God knows it won't be easy, but it's the only cure for the disease that's killing us as a free people. Before we can reach agreement on how do get to our destination, we simply can't short-circuit the process of agreeing as to what that destination is.


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