I don’t use social media, but I’m on a lot of email lists, including the “Trump Make America Great Again Committee,” as well as various Democratic lists that span that party’s often-fractious ideological spectrum. It’s like reading missives from warring universes, factions that are wholly uninterested in understanding different points of view, intent solely on scoring partisan points as loudly, vituperatively and uncompromisingly as possible.
American politics has always been a fiercely partisan, at times ugly, affair, and the current efforts to defame the other side are probably no worse than they have been since the earliest days of the Republic. In the election of 1800, for example, followers of President John Adams called Thomas Jefferson (who was both Adams’s rival and his vice president) “a mean-spirited, low-lived fellow, the son of a half-breed Indian squaw, sired by a Virginia mulatto father.” The Jeffersonians returned the compliment by labeling the president a “hideous hermaphroditical character, which has neither the force and firmness of a man, nor the gentleness and sensibility of a woman.” (People didn’t let political correctness get in the way in those days.) By 1856, however, things had taken a decidedly more violent turn, when South Carolina Congressman Preston Brooks beat Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner senseless on the Senate floor, actually shattering his gold-tipped cane on Sumner’s skull. Sumner never fully recovered; yet Congress couldn’t even muster enough votes to expel Brooks.
The republic survived the election of 1800, but the Brooks-Sumner confrontation led to Civil War. It had taken, in Lincoln’s phrase, “four score and seven years” for the nation to finally acknowledge that slavery contradicted America’s founding myth of “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” In doing so, it had finally broken the social contract that had held the nation together.
In the unending barrage of emails I get from today’s political factions, almost nobody is talking about a social contract – even though the notion that people give up some of their (at least theoretical) rights and privileges to live peacefully together in a community is the foundation of both the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. In the current scorched earth environment, I hear little about either finding common ground or seeking the common good, and a recent report by the Knight Foundation found the lowest levels of trust in our public institutions in memory.
This is a dangerous place to be. Donald Trump shows no interest in finding common ground, but seeks only to divide us for his political advantage. My fear is that too many Democrats seem to be following the same path. In my next post I’ll explore why, when the social contract breaks down – or, as in this country, when it is deliberately undermined – the way forward is not only to throw the rascals out but to rebuild the public trust.