There are two basic views of society and the role that politics should play in it. The traditional libertarian view, as embodied in America's founding (albeit imperfectly), sees government mainly as a referee that applies the laws equally to all citizens.
In this view, the public square is a neutral place, where a tightly restrained government allows people to live out their lives largely as they choose—even if they make seemingly boneheaded choices. The government adjudicates disputes among private parties, provides some public services, and tries mainly to keep people from harming one another.
The second view, which has long been common among progressives and now among populist conservatives, is that there is no such thing as neutrality. In that way of thinking, the role of government is to advance the "public good," and officials should have all the necessary tools at their disposal to force people to behave (economically and culturally) as they should.
That view is even more traditional, as it harkens back to the days of kings, potentates, and marauders—people who recognized nothing beyond their own power to exert force. The problem, of course, is that the "public good" is in the eye of the beholder. Someone has to make that call.
Even the most authoritarian Americans recognize the primacy of elections, even if they concoct bogus voter-fraud theories to justify their attempt at stealing them. But there's much debate over what powers an election confers upon the winners.
According to the libertarian view, it shouldn't matter all that much who happens to become the president, governor, or city council member because those politicians are granted only a limited amount of authority. Unfortunately, those limits have eroded, and now elected and appointed officials (especially during the coronavirus) grab as much authority as they can.
That has turned politics into an endless grudge match, given the stakes always seem so high. The rhetorical fervor has convinced many Americans that they must always be active in politics, lest their way of life and religious faith get cast onto the dustbin. Even before Donald Trump, progressives have portrayed every GOP victory as the harbinger of fascism.
Conservatives have done something similar in recent years. The author of the infamous "Flight 93" column published during the 2016 election argued that the race was the equivalent of that hijacked commercial airliner that crashed in Pennsylvania. Voters could charge the cockpit or die because a Hillary Clinton presidency would be "Russian Roulette with a semi-auto," wrote Michael Anton.
Given these stakes—real or hyperbolic—we shouldn't be surprised that increasing numbers of Americans view every election as a do-or-die situation. If Republicans win, we'll soon be goose-stepping down Main Street and giving the Treasury to billionaires. If Democrats win, we better prepare for a life in the gulags, as socialists cancel Christmas and hand the country to Mexico.
Two recent news stories show how this politics-as-endless-culture-war is playing out. The Washington Post reported on a fracas in Kalispell, Mont.—an historic town on the outskirts of Glacier National Park. This is one of the most beautiful locales in the country, yet the idyllic community is embroiled in vicious political and cultural divisions. The city, and the state, once exuded a friendly, tolerant attitude.
"Hostility over the November election, the coronavirus, and social movements have left a trail of bad blood among old-school Republicans, backers of the former president, increasingly vocal Democrats and out-of-state transplants, convulsing everything from the school district and the public library to daily interactions," according to the article. "Our community is going through a divorce right now," Mayor Mark Johnson told local officials.
I've seen it in my own community and elsewhere. And no place is immune from the hostilities. The Atlantic's Peter Wehner reported on the widening political divisions within American evangelical churches. "The aggressive, disruptive, and unforgiving mindset that characterizes so much of our politics has found a home in many American churches," he wrote.
This divide is the result of what many observers refer to as the "politicization of everything." I was always interested in politics, at least since my teenage years, but don't remember every single thing that we did leading to knock-down, drag-out political debates. I always had beloved friends and relatives with a variety of political opinions.
I don't know what we do (beyond, on a personal level, refusing to segregate ourselves into political tribes), but I know what not to do. In a recent column, Sohrab Ahmari argued that to save America, we must reject libertarianism. He called on conservatives to reject the "illusion" of neutrality and exercise political authority "on the side of truth."
Whose truth? Whomever has the power, I suppose. As exciting as it may sound to grab power and vanquish our enemies, I'd suggest that the only way to save America is to recommit to its original principles.
This column was first published in The Orange County Register.