Fear and Loathing in the American Polity

October 30, 2020 Updated: October 30, 2020

Commentary

Undoubtedly, you have been hearing ad nauseam that Americans across the ideological spectrum are tense and fearful about Tuesday’s presidential election. The reasons are incredibly simple.

But first, a digression: Let’s take a quick look back at the presidential election that took place 200 years ago, in 1820. President James Monroe won re-election. Trivia question: Who was Monroe’s opponent in that campaign?

If you’re drawing a blank, you should congratulate yourself. You couldn’t have come up with a correct name, because Monroe ran unopposed.

How did that happen? The fact is that the 1820 presidential race just wasn’t all that important to most of the voters. It was an “era of good feeling,” and the federal government was small enough that it really wouldn’t affect Americans’ lives much regardless of who won the presidency.

Today’s world is totally different. First, we’re in an era of bad feelings—of mistrust, anger, fear, and loathing. Second, the role of the federal government has expanded so enormously in the past two centuries that today’s Americans overwhelmingly believe that it will make an enormous, almost life or death, difference in their lives whether Donald Trump or Joe Biden prevails.

As far apart as the two sides are, in two respects they have much in common. Perhaps I’m being a bit naive, but I think that the ultimate goals of the two sides are surprisingly similar. I have progressive friends who fervently believe that Biden is the only rational choice and that Trump would be a disaster for the country, and I have conservative friends who believe with equal fervency that it’s the other way around.

And yet, if you get to the heart of what these warring partisans want for America, I suspect that the overall desire is for our country to be safe, peaceful, and prosperous—a land where justice prevails and everyone is treated with equal respect before the law. [Note: Obviously, these benevolent, patriotic sentiments aren’t shared by the intellectually warped, morally crippled, tear-down-America radicals who haven’t a clue how to contribute anything productive to their fellow Americans.]

The other thing that the two sides have in common is the sense of being threatened by the policy preferences of the other side.

Progressives believe that increased government control is necessary to implement their vision for a better America and that if President Trump is re-elected, all hope will be lost for salvation from climate catastrophe, racist law enforcement, and economic justice. To progressives, Trump represents an existential threat to the fulfillment of their most highly cherished goals.

Conservatives, on the other hand, feel threatened by the prospect that a Biden–Harris administration would reduce them to cogs in some stifling government-planned and -imposed plan. Conservatives don’t share progressives’ strong faith in the omnicompetence of government, but instead fear the loss of traditional individual liberties to a suffocating tyranny. To conservatives, the Democrats want to abolish the relatively free and prosperous America that we grew up in.

Returning to the notion that a majority on both sides of the partisan divide genuinely yearn for our country to fulfill our country’s noble ideals more fully, one point that separates the two sides is the concept of time—specifically, a different sense of how rapidly true progress can realistically happen.

I recall a few months ago, after one tragic case of a black man being shot by a cop, a young NBA player was quoted as saying how tired he was of being told that change happens incrementally. This resonated with me, because it was my own bursting desire to put an end to pollution, poverty, racism, etc. 50 years ago that caused me to embrace socialism, because only socialism promised rapid, complete cures for those problems.

As I became more aware of how the world works, I turned from socialism. I learned that socialism, regardless of the best intentions, inevitably leads to societal impoverishment. It’s an inescapable fact that in a world of imperfect citizens and imperfect leaders (whose greater power magnifies their imperfections and consequently their negative impact on their fellow beings) there can be no panacea nor utopia.

As the young NBA player may someday realize, however disappointing it may be, incremental progress is the best we can hope for. The good news is, as I have written before, if you look over the past, say, 50 years, you can see that the sum total of all the incremental progress in areas such as war, pollution, poverty, racism, etc., has added up to significant improvements. Yes, of course we still have a long way to go. The political question becomes: How can government accelerate that progress without impeding or short-circuiting that progress? Half of the electorate is betting on more government as the answer, while the other half is betting that it isn’t. Which approach is adopted over the next four years is what we will decide on Tuesday.

The consensus of public comments on the election is correct: This is a hugely important election—possibly one “for all the marbles.” I hope that, regardless of who wins, we Americans don’t lose sight of the common humanity and common hope for a better America that most of us share, but I’m not optimistic. Sadly, because so many of us feel so threatened by the opposition’s agenda, few of us can even communicate with each other any longer.

How sad and diabolical a trap we have fallen into that we should be so divided when the overwhelming majority of us share the same aspirations, but have embraced radically different visions of how those aspirations are to be realized.

Mark Hendrickson, an economist, recently retired from the faculty of Grove City College, where he remains a fellow for economic and social policy at the Institute for Faith and Freedom.

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.