Culture

Left vs. Right: It’s Often Armageddon

Costumed protesters at the People’s Climate March in Washington, D.C., April 2017. (Reuters photo: Joshua Roberts)
Overheated rhetoric is nothing new in the history of American politics. Expect more doom-mongering in 2018, but don’t expect the End Times.

As one year in politics ends and another begins, there is an inevitable desire to look back on what was this year and contemplate what will be next year. 2017 was a year of great political anxiety. The American Left has been consumed by a dark view of our future — a Trumpian dystopia — that has induced them to “#Resist” our would-be tyrant in an effort to return America to the proper path.

Left-wing resistance in 2017 reminds me a lot of the anti-anti-Trump arguments from 2016, popularized by “The Flight 93 Election,” published anonymously at the Claremont Review of Books. (The author turned out to be Michael Anton, a former speechwriter for Rudy Giuliani and George W. Bush.) His claim then was that an electoral victory by Hillary Clinton would seal the doom of the American project in self-government. Conservatives who were unsettled by Trump’s antics therefore had to vote for him. The country was at stake.

Funny how the country always seems to be at stake, one way or another. My guess is that 2018 will hold more of the same. As the midterm approaches, leftists’ desire for victory will inspire them to rail more loudly against Trump, while Trump’s backers will warn of all the awful things to befall the United States should Nancy Pelosi reclaim the speaker’s gavel.

If any of this sounds familiar, it’s because we have experienced it all before. This last year seems to have been a replay of 2009, albeit with the teams switched, and I expect 2018 to feel a lot like an inverted version of 2010.

In fact, this us-versus-them rhetoric is quite common throughout American history, as have been the apocalyptic undertones. At the Progressive party’s convention in August 1912, for instance, Teddy Roosevelt closed his speech declaring, “Fearless of the future; unheeding of our individual fates; with unflinching hearts and undimmed eyes; we stand at Armageddon, and we battle for the Lord!” At the 1896 Democratic National Convention, William Jennings Bryan cast the gold standard as an attempt by eastern financiers to crucify western farmers on a “Cross of Gold.” The 1850s and 1860s were full of apocalyptic views on politics and society — in both the North and the South. The Whig presses of the 1830s cast Andrew Jackson as a would-be tyrant. In the 1790s, James Madison wrote that Alexander Hamilton — his erstwhile partner in framing a new government — was fomenting a quiet revolution to replace the republican form of government with monarchy.

I am not altogether sure where this tradition of superheated rhetoric comes from. Perhaps it has something to do with the age-old American commitment to free speech. The United States has almost always employed a very narrow definition of sedition, so maybe partisans have felt comfortable ratcheting the vitriol to the maximum.

Just as likely, it has something to do with the millennialism that has long characterized the United States. And no, I do not mean the generation of young people that political commentators love to focus on these days. Instead, millennialism is the interpretation among some sects of Protestants of Revelation 20:1–6, which promises that Jesus Christ would return to establish a thousand-year kingdom. During the First Great Awakening, revivalist ministers such as Jonathan Edwards and George Whitefield preached that Christ’s return would follow increased devotion among believers, especially in the New World, where the coming kingdom would be centered. This eschatological expectation worked its way into politics very early on — for while the Founding Fathers came mostly from the rationalist tradition of the Enlightenment, many Americans saw it as part of the great unfolding of God’s plan.

Even the secular elements of society had a certain eschatological view of the American project. There is Thomas Jefferson’s oft-quoted hope in the “empire of liberty,” for instance, and Thomas Paine’s comment in Common Sense that “we have it in our power to begin the world over again.” One need not be particularly religious to feel drawn to the notion of a thousand-year kingdom of perfect justice and harmony, of shaking the dust of the Old World off one’s feet and truly starting clean.

The contemporary Left has become less religious, but it is just as prone to a version of this thinking as the Right. After all, the forefathers of modern progressivism were heavily influenced by the Social Gospel of theologians such as Walter Rauschenbusch, who viewed economic inequality and racism as sinful forces in the Kingdom of Evil.

One downside to this kind of worldview is the tendency to conclude that one’s political opponents are not only in error but somehow benighted. Why else would they interfere with this holy effort to perfect the nation? TR’s famous quote about doing “battle for the Lord” was implicitly battle against the opponents of the Lord, namely William Howard Taft and the establishment Republicans. It seems strange to cast Taft, of all people, in such a light, probably because we are no longer having the same argument he and TR had in 1912. In 2124, people will probably find today’s debate similarly overwrought.

American political rhetoric seems to become more apocalyptic when the issues dividing the nation are drawn most starkly. You do not really see people talking or writing like this in, say, the 1870s, 1920s, or 1950s. But when the battle between the Left and the Right (the definition of each has varied through the years) is more pitched — say in the 1790s, the 1850s, the 1890s, the 1910s, and (yes) the 2010s — politics takes on a good-versus-evil kind of tone.

If our view of politics tends to pitch one side as good and another as bad, our system of politics forces the good guys and the bad guys to share power.

The great irony of all this is that our system of government is explicitly designed to immobilize such forces. The Founders believed that government had to be premised on the republican principle of majority rule, but this was a very dangerous force because it could lead to democratic tyranny. So the Framers divided power among multiple institutions in a clever scheme intended to impede the ability of any one faction from dominating the government for too long. If our view of politics tends to pitch one side as good and another as bad, our system of politics forces the good guys and the bad guys to share power. Indeed, Hamilton and Madison — the great combatants in the first political “apocalypse” — co-authored the Federalist essays that detail this very logic.

So I think we should all try to relax. Policy outcomes in this country rarely reflect the dire prophecies of political combatants. Sometimes the needle moves a little to the left, sometimes to the right, but the Battle of Armageddon has yet to happen, Christ has yet to return to inaugurate his millennial kingdom. I’m not a betting man, but if I were, I’d wager that the tax bill or another debate on immigration reform is not going to bring Him back, either. Instead, it will be politics as usual in 2018. And that is not such a bad thing.

Happy New Year!

READ MORE:

Today’s Political Polarization Isn’t as Striking as We Think

Do Americans Even Desire Unity?

Can a Divided America Survive?

Jay Cost — Jay Cost is the author of The Price of Greatness: James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, and the Creation of American Oligarchy.

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