One party claims to be the only group that can save the nation from chaos, violence, and economic devastation. The other party claims to be the only hope to salvage what is left of science, decency, and democracy itself.
America has embarked upon the most negative presidential campaign in recent American history. In order to win, the Democratic Party needs to paint a picture of a divided America where the forces of darkness are already in power and must be removed. There can be no time to lose to salvage America’s future, and Donald Trump must be the cause of everything negative—from law enforcement scandals to the pandemic.
In order to win reelection during a pandemic and severe economic recession, the Republicans need to paint the other side in the darkest hues, claiming they’re the dupes of radicals bent on destroying the nation and, perhaps, all of Western civilization.
In 2020, it’s in both parties’ interest that their bases become mobilized by fear and anxiety. Like white blood cells being activated to fight off and kill an invading virus in the body, the political bases are being weaponized on both sides.
Both political parties have made this calculation of what is in their best interest. But is it in the interest of the American people? Is this all we can hope for in the divided days of the 21st century? What are the consequences for such a negative campaign?
Let’s start first with the consequences. Both parties are cultivating a mentality that might prove profoundly dangerous in the post-election environment. Both sides already fear the other side is in the process of stealing the election.
Democrats are dropping into the political discourse the rumors that Trump is working with foreigners, that he’s trying to shut down the Postal Service to keep people from voting, and that he will refuse to leave office even if he loses the election.
Trump is asserting that voting via mail is a way for the Democrats to steal the election, and some of his supporters have even proposed the idea that the coronavirus is a made-up plot that will disappear after the election.
Whoever wins the election, what portion of the American people will now not see the results as legitimate? This is a threat to the system greater than anything we have seen in a generation. When a large portion of the people don’t trust the results of elections, how can one expect a republic based on representative democracy to survive?
How can the American people ever be expected to be a united people if one side is encouraged by our political leaders to view other Americans as dangerous, somehow foreign, and bent on destroying all they value? How can we unite to fight a foreign enemy when every decision and every subject is seen through the lens of political suspicion and with the assumption that the other side is always doing the wrong thing for the wrong reasons?
We are already experiencing this with the pandemic—no one seems willing to trust the other side. Are masks required for public health, or are they a plot against liberty? Is sending our kids back to school the best thing for them and their education or is it a calculated political move to give the air of normalcy during the pandemic?
Does it have to be this way?
The Foundational Debates
I went back to the very foundational debates at the very beginning of the American constitutional order for an answer. I commend to you Alexander Hamilton’s “Federalist Paper #1.” Written in the weeks following the Constitutional Convention’s signing of the new Constitution and at the very beginning of the great national debate over its ratification, this essay began a project that became the most important political philosophy ever written by Americans.
The stakes couldn’t have been higher. As Hamilton himself put it, the consequences were “nothing less than the existence of the union” and “the fate of an empire.” Events at that time would prove, he said, whether people were actually capable of freely choosing their form of government from “reflection and choice” or if they were destined always to be at the mercy of accident and force.
Even though the stakes were so high, Hamilton’s advice was for the people engaged in the debate to do so with a humble moderation. There are so many reasons people can have the wrong understanding, so many prejudices and biases and bad information that can lead anyone astray that everyone should approach controversies with moderation, he said, “however well persuaded of being in the right” they may be.
He further went on to warn about the dangerous spirit of partisanship: “Nothing could be more ill judged than the intolerant spirit, which has, at all times, characterized political parties.”
And, in a lesson we need as much in the 21st century as his fellow Americans needed it in 1787, he warned that threats, force, and punishments in politics don’t win converts: “For in politics as in religion, it is equally absurd to aim at making proselytes by fire and sword. Heresies, in either, can rarely be cured by persecution.”
At the very dawn of our constitutional order, with the stakes every bit as high or higher than today, Hamilton urged his fellow Americans to use reason and calm deliberation, not overheated rhetoric and division, as their tools for debate. He urged a rhetoric of reflection and not passion; of moderation rather than intolerance.
Today, our partisan leaders, as they so often have done, seek to use our divisions, our passions, our prejudices, and our paranoia to serve their own interests. With the megaphone of social media, the more radical political bases are now some of the loudest voices among us. As we are driven further away from each other, the American experiment in free government is imperiled.
In 1787, Hamilton led a political campaign to enact a totally new form of government for the American people. His rhetoric was learned and calm. He not only kept to his principles with civility and reason, but he and his fellow Federalists also won the debate.
Perhaps the current quality of our political debates isn’t inevitable after all. Perhaps the reasoned voice still can win, if we give it a chance and demand our partisan leaders do the same.
Gary L. Gregg is editor of the forthcoming “Reflection and Choice: The Federalists, the Anti-Federalists, and the Debate that Defined America” and is host of the McConnell Center Podcast.
Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.