To her credit, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi has condemned the violence that erupted at a conservative rally in Berkeley, California, on Tuesday. “Our democracy has no room for inciting violence or endangering the public, no matter the ideology of those who commit such acts,” said Pelosi. “The violent actions of people calling themselves antifa … deserve unequivocal condemnation, and the perpetrators should be arrested and prosecuted.”
Pelosi is right to condemn the violence, but arresting and prosecuting perpetrators of political violence will only treat a symptom of the much deeper challenges our democracy faces. While some of those responsible for the violence in Charlottesville, Berkeley and elsewhere came only to cause trouble, many have sought to justify their actions as necessary to counter ideas they reject and policies they abhor. In other words, when you believe your political opposition is just plain wrong and even immoral, violence is a legitimate form of resistance.
Fortunately those who embrace this view are few in number, but a similar rationale has come to justify the rigid partisanship and rejection of compromise that characterize today’s politics. During President Obama’s first term Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell declared: “The single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president.” Following McConnell’s lead, Republicans resisted the Obama administration at every turn, and were fairly criticized by liberal commentators for doing so. Now that Democrats have lost control of the White House, Congress and 2/3 of state legislatures and governor’s mansions, those same commentators cheer Democrats on as they resist every Republican initiative. Many Democrats take pride in calling themselves The Resistance.
But in a democratic republic there can be no resistance, only citizens and their representatives in pursuit of the common good. Our politics has come unmoored from the idea of civitas – of citizens sharing responsibility and a common purpose. We can condemn Trump for his divisive twitters, but the reality is that division now defines our politics.
Our democracy has a systemic problem. We have divided ourselves into political camps, what James Madison and other framers would have called factions, in pursuit of our own interests and passions at the expense of our fellow citizens, the community and the nation. It is politics as warfare. Either you’re with me, or you’re the enemy. Partisanship and identity politics have overwhelmed the demos.
Just listen to the talking heads on television who slice and dice voters into black and white, men and women, Catholic, Protestant and Jewish, urban and rural, wealthy, middle class and poor. Congressional districts are gerrymandered to assure the election of members of one group or another. Our children are taught in their schools and universities to identify themselves not as citizens of the United States and of the communities they live in but by the color of their skin, their gender and their ethnicity. They are taught that their friends are not just friends but members of racial and ethnic groups making them different and in need of extra sensitivity – unless they are white, in which case they are privileged.
Racial, ethnic, cultural and even political identities have come to rule our politics. Some in the Democratic party have cautioned that their losses in 2016 resulted from their heavy reliance on identity politics. They are surely correct, given that most blue-collar whites who supported Trump do not experience privilege in their day-to-day lives.
But it is not the success or failure of the Democrat or Republican parties that should motivate us. Our concern should be for the future of e pluribus unum – out of many, one. Unless we embrace Martin Luther King’s admonition to judge our fellow citizens by the content of their character rather than by the color of their skin, and today even by their political affiliations and policy preferences, we will not overcome the differences and passions that divide us. Nor will we muster a persuasive condemnation of white nationalists and other extremists who, like the rest of us, place self-interest and group loyalty above the liberty and welfare of every American.