As most of us are only too painfully aware, the gap between the right and left in today’s political world can become extremely acrimonious at times, making bipartisanship a difficult thing to make happen.
Just ask Joe Biden. He’s been president for only two months, but he’s learned already that what some term hyper-partisanship is something very real, something he’ll have to contend with at every turn.
The latest push among progressives to abolish the filibuster is justified by reminding moderates that the entire Biden agenda could fall to such obstructionist tactics.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., recently sent that very message loud and clear. If Democrats erase the filibuster, he said, they’ll “release furies they can barely imagine.”
How bizarre to threaten retaliation via obstruction when he becomes Majority Leader once again when that’s exactly what he did when he previously held that title.
So much for the politics we see every day. What too few of us know enough about, however, is a more austere, some might even term it “gentlemanly” (in deference to an age that unfortunately no longer exists) approach to matters that comprise the principal differences between right and left.
Often the more antagonistic elements that divide the two sides in today’s political debates, especially those that invoke the Founders, become quite rational extensions of ideas grounded in philosophy and seemingly explained adequately by science. While the right traces natural rights to John Locke’s “state of nature,” for example, it too often ignores the degree to which Locke himself saw man’s entry into community (social contract) and consent to abide by its laws as essential to preserving those very rights.
Spokesmen for the left, on the other hand, are frequently too inclined to see that same social contract as much more than a pragmatic accommodation with the real world. To them, it constitutes the partial surrender of freedom and some rights to the will of the community, often to the detriment of individualism itself.
The left’s preference for the John Locke who wrote “An Essay Concerning Human Understanding” over the one who penned “The Second Treatise on Civil Government” makes perfect political sense, given its proclivity to and advocacy of change. By controlling environment, they suggest, “tabula rasa” promises man’s best chance to manage change and literally control the future by shaping every individual into what society most wants and needs simply by controlling the environment in which man develops.
So much for free will and individual choice, counters the right. What the left supports, they conclude, pretty much dehumanizes man, effectively turning him from a thinking human being into nothing less than a chess piece, awaiting the next move by those who make up and control the rules of the game.
In this same vein, the left much prefers Adam Smith’s “Theory of Moral Sentiments”  over his later  “The Wealth of Nations,” in large part because the former defines a critical role for government in shielding the downtrodden from the brutality of unregulated commercialism and self-interest.
To rely on the so-called “laws of the free market” (Smith’s “invisible hand”) to right all the wrongs of unregulated free enterprise might salve the conscience of today’s political right, but it does no such thing for the left.
A right that seeks to anchor tradition, sanctify individualism and preserve the best of the past is inclined to find reinforcement and solace in Isaac Newton’s universe of fixed, immutable laws to explain its distrust of change and faith in absolutes. The left, in turn, looks logically to the ever-changing world of Charles Darwin to sustain its claims to a natural world in constant flux. Where conservatives look affectionately to nature’s laws to validate the logic of human rights that come from God, liberals counter with a reading of the social contract that presumes a right for government to define the general welfare in exchange for the security that true community provides.
In this exchange, individual liberty is transformed from a natural right threatened by majorities to a civil right that depends exclusively on government, the political arm of the community. Freedom that had meaning only in a state of nature makes little sense in a world rendered more secure by people’s consent to be governed in accordance with something we term the rule of law.
One thing is for sure. While the two sides seem to agree on very little, when we contrast them this way on the issues, rather than see them fight it out in all too familiar political skirmishes, what tends to emerge is a more gentle, moderate, even respectful tone to their differences.
We seem to sense, once each side is exposed to the full range and depth of the other’s thinking and commitment, a propensity for conversation, negotiation, even compromise.
It’s in this context, one might conclude, that our Founders must have found the willingness, even the incentive, to engage in the kind of give-and-take that made our form of government possible. But what was essential for it to work as those who designed it intended was a need to create what James Madison envisioned to be a deliberative democracy, one where all, not just some of its citizens are informed and educated to participate intelligently in constitutional discussions and conversations that make them full participants in what Madison scholar Larry Kramer terms “popular constitutionalism.”
He writes that in the Founding era, “power to interpret (and not just the power to make) constitutional law was thought to reside with the people. And not theoretically or in the abstract, but in an active, ongoing sense. It was the community at large — not the judiciary, not any branch of government — that controlled the meaning of the Constitution and was responsible for ensuring its proper implementation in the day-to-day process of governing.”
Madison validates Kramer’s thesis in his personal notes on the National Gazette Essays he published in 1791.
There, Kramer tells us, Madison assigns those he termed “the class of the literati” to serve as mentors to the masses, charged with a responsibility to nourish the kind of climate necessary to make self-government possible.
They would serve as “cultivators of the human mind — the manufacturers of useful knowledge — the agents of the commerce of ideas, — the censors of public manners — the teachers of the arts of life and the means of happiness.”
It appears Madison envisioned the kind of relationship between elite and masses that never quite materialized. He wrote of elected representatives whose trips home enabled them to become “agents for the exchange of political ideas among the citizenry. As elected officials whose task was to deliberate on issues of national import, they (could) both attend to the views of their constituents and convey back to them the concerns and interests of the nation at large.”
What we inherited and struggle still to perfect instead is a system of education seemingly designed as much to indoctrinate as to educate, to cultivate obedience and acceptance among those unable to “make the cut” in a competitive meritocracy. Consequently, the role Madison hoped they would play in the deliberative democracy he contemplated has been lost in the process. And we’ve been forced to live with the results ever since.