August 9, 2012

In Praise of Polarization

Bipartisan compromise is deeply over-rated.

As the presidential campaign intensifies, we are sure to hear more and more complaints about the “polarization” of the electorate and the increasingly bitter divide between the two major parties. “It’s worse now than it’s been in years,” the Brookings Institution’s Darrell West said recently. “Our leaders are deeply polarized, and ‘compromise’ has become a dirty word.” CNN’s senior political analyst David Gergen agrees: “As each of the parties has moved toward ideological purity, our politics have become ever more polarized, our governing ever more paralyzed. Extremists increasingly run the show.”

According to Thomas E. Mann and Norman J. Ornstein, “The partisan and ideological polarization from which we now suffer comes at a time when critical problems cry out for resolution, making for a particularly toxic mix.” The consensus is clear: Problems need solving, but political polarization has paralyzed the government.

 down with bipartisan compromise by bruce thornton  
 Illustration by Barbara Kelley

Such complaints about polarization reflect a misunderstanding of our political order. What we decry as polarization exists not because politicians are party hacks, but because citizens passionately disagree about fundamental, and sometimes irreconcilable, principles and beliefs that most public policies necessarily reflect. Nor are these conflicts always amenable to compromise, which requires at some level a betrayal or weakening of those beliefs. The conflict over slavery is the obvious example, a dispute that defied every legislative and political “compromise” and ultimately had to be resolved by a bloody civil war. The Civil Rights movement and the disagreement over the war in Vietnam are other examples of “polarization” much more divisive and violent than anything we are experiencing today. In fact, such fierce disputes are as prevalent in American political history as bipartisan compromise. Both are in the DNA of our political system.

James Madison and “Factions”

Indeed, one can argue that the Founders foresaw and accepted such polarization as an inevitable consequence of human nature, rather than a failure of the political order. In Federalist No. 10, James Madison acknowledged the problem of “polarization,” which some today consider unique to our times. He describes the problem in terms similar to those heard today: “Complaints are everywhere heard . . . that our governments are too unstable, that the public good is disregarded in the conflicts of rival parties, and that measures are too often decided, not according to the rules of justice and the rights of the minor party, but by the superior force of an interested and overbearing majority.”

This “factious spirit,” as Madison called it, is the consequence of the human propensity to form “factions”–– “a number of citizens, whether amounting to a majority or a minority of the whole, who are united and actuated by some common impulse of passion, or of interest, adversed to the rights of other citizens, or to the permanent and aggregate interests of the community.”

Madison parts company with our modern critics when he acknowledges that faction is not the symptom of a curable political disease. Rather, it is an inevitable product of human nature and political freedom itself, and so cannot be eliminated without “destroying the liberty which is essential to its existence,” a cure “worse than the disease.” The other cure for faction is to give all citizens “the same opinions, the same passions, and the same interests.” But this remedy is contrary to human nature, for “as long as the reason of man continues fallible, and he is at liberty to exercise it, different opinions will be formed. As long as the connection subsists between his reason and his self-love, his opinions and his passions will have a reciprocal influence on each other; and the former will be objects to which the latter will attach themselves.”

Madison concludes, “the latent causes of faction are thus sown in the nature of man . . . A zeal for different opinions concerning religion, concerning government, and many other points, as well of speculation as of practice; an attachment to different leaders ambitiously contending for pre-eminence and power; or to persons of other descriptions whose fortunes have been interesting to the human passions, have, in turn, divided mankind into parties, inflamed them with mutual animosity, and rendered them much more disposed to vex and oppress each other than to co-operate for their common good.”

Given this unchanging human nature, the solution to the problem of faction lies in mitigating and containing its malign effects rather than trying to eliminate it. Hence, our federal republican government of separated and balanced powers prevents any one faction from predominating and threatening the freedom of the whole. As John Adams wrote, “The balance of a well-ordered government will alone be able to prevent that emulation [rivalry for power] from degenerating into dangerous ambition, irregular rivalries, destructive factions, wasting seditions, and bloody civil war.”

What we call “polarization,” then, is assumed by the Founders to be the natural state of free citizens. The remedy for it will not be found in utopian appeals to bipartisan compromise in which flawed human beings are somehow able to put aside their own particular interests and principles to serve the good of all. Rather, we should trust in the political process through which the parties must make their appeals to the voters, and then live with the consequences until the next election. If that process sometimes leads to gridlock or stagnation, at least political liberty will still be safe.

The Rise of “Techno-Politics”

Madison’s wisdom, however, is anathema to progressives, who believe that government exists not to protect our freedom but to “solve problems.” Liberal columnist E. J. Dionne invoked this understanding of politics last year in his criticism of Republican “rhetoric,” which “is nearly devoid of talk about solving practical problems––how to improve our health care, education and transportation systems, or how to create more middle-class jobs.” This vision of politics is what French political philosopher Chantal Delsol calls “techno-politics,” a form of government in which elites who presumably have superior knowledge determine policy.

“Techno-politics,” however, leads to an ever-expanding government that threatens the freedom and self-reliance the Constitution was created to protect. Massive bureaucracies, backed by the coercive power of the state, arise to implement and manage the policies required to solve such problems. The Constitutional mechanism that makes elected representatives, subject to electoral audit by the people, the authority for laws gives way to unelected government bureaucrats and judges who find their authority not in the people, but in this alleged greater knowledge that justifies changing traditional social mores and customs.

After all, most of the people lack this specialized knowledge, and so rely on religion, custom, and traditional wisdom for their decisions. To the progressive, letting such people determine policy and law according to these outmoded irrational prejudices would be like consulting a witch doctor instead of going to the hospital.

This view of politics defines the Democrats. In a recent interview, President Obama reflected on the “mistakes” of his first term, saying he erred in “thinking that this job was just about getting the policy right.” In other words, he views his job as a technical one, finding the policy that solves the problem. But given the inability of the average citizen to understand the technical knowledge necessary for grasping both the problem and the policy solution, the President also must “tell a story to the American people that gives them a sense of unity and purpose and optimism, especially during tough times.”

This patronizing view of Americans recalls his 2008 campaign statement about people who face economic tough times: “And it’s not surprising then they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.” Lacking the knowledge of the techno-elite, citizens descend into irrational emotion and scapegoating, and need placating by a soothing “narrative” spun by their betters.

A Clash of Visions

In contrast, most conservatives do not believe that the knowledge and virtue of self-proclaimed elites are necessarily any greater than those of the average person, and so such elites should not be entrusted with more and more power to achieve “social justice” or “fairness.” Conservatives prize instead individual freedom, responsibility, and accountability, and trust in the Constitutional political architecture, rather than elites, to balance competing interests. They accept occasional political gridlock and stagnation as an acceptable price to pay for protecting political freedom. It may take time and pain, but our history for the past two centuries shows that the political process will find a solution to our problems without destroying our political freedom.

The current presidential campaign, then, is intensely polarized precisely because these two very different visions of human life and government are clashing: on the one hand, the believers in a techno-political elite who see the federal government and its coercive power as the source of social and economic order, justice, and flourishing; on the other, the believers in traditional Madisonian politics who see free, autonomous individuals and the “little platoons” of civil society as the foundations of both our political and economic order, and who view the power of the government with suspicion. For, like Madison in Federalist No. 48, they understand that “power is of an encroaching nature” given what George Washington in his 1796 Farewell Address called the “love of power, and proneness to abuse it, which predominates in the human heart.”

These clashing visions of the role of government reflect profound beliefs and principles that speak to people’s core views of human life, human identity, and the goods we should pursue. They are not technical problems that committees of experts can solve if only corrupt, hyper-partisan politicians would set aside their selfish interests and meet together in an Olympian spirit of disinterested cooperation. Polarization is not a political dysfunction, but rather the sign that free Americans take their fundamental political ideals seriously.


Bruce S. Thornton is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution. He received his BA in Latin in 1975 and his PhD in comparative literature–Greek, Latin, and English–in 1983, both from the University of California, Los Angeles. Thornton is currently a professor of classics and humanities at California State University in Fresno, California. He is the author of nine books and numerous essays and reviews on Greek culture and civilization and their influence on Western civilization. His next book, to be released in July 2014 by the Hoover Institution Press, is titled Democracy's Dangers and Discontents: The Tyranny of the Majority from the Greeks to Obama..


Letters to the editor may be sent to definingideas@stanford.edu. Editors reserve the right to reject or publish (and edit) letters.