Let’s be honest. It hasn’t been the best year in American political history.
While there have certainly been worse, 2017 stands out by virtue of the passive aggressive nature of its politics.
That may sound odd. After all, our political debates seemed to be quite aggressive over the last twelve months.
But consider that almost everyone is dissatisfied with the status quo. That, in itself, is curious given that we are supposedly in an era of extreme polarization. If one side in our political debate is unhappy, the other should at least be satisfied with how things are going, right?
Even more perplexing, gridlock has become the norm in Congress in the absence of any meaningful effort on the part of its members to pass (or defeat) legislation they support (or oppose). Unlike in the past, today’s inaction results when members of both political parties seek to avoid adjudicating controversial issues publicly.
That Congress can be paralyzed by the mere prospect of disagreement, or of conflict, is itself a testament to the extent of our political dysfunction today.
The irony in all of this is that our political system was made for conflict.
Republic of the Rising Sun
After nearly four months of continuous debate, the delegates to the Federal Convention gathered in the Philadelphia State House one last time on September 17, 1787 to give final approval to the product of their labors.
Writing to the Marquise de Lafayette afterwards, George Washington reflected that it was “little short of a miracle” that so many delegates “different from each other in their manners, circumstances and prejudices” were able to “unite in forming a system of national Government, so little liable to well-founded objections.”
Yet on that September morning, the delegates were hardly certain that the Constitution would be ratified by the states, much less that it would successfully structure American politics far into the future.
But the delegates were optimistic. They believed that their work would not be in vain.
James Madison recorded the moment, writing:
“Whilst the last members were signing [the Constitution] Doctr. Franklin looking towards the Presidents Chair, at the back of which a rising sun happened to be painted, observed to a few members near him, that Painters had found it difficult to distinguish in their art a rising from a setting sun. I have, said he, often and often in the course of the Session, and the vicissitudes of my hopes and fears as to its issue, looked at that behind the President without being able to tell whether it was rising or setting: But at length I have the happiness to know that it is a rising and not a setting Sun.”
Of course, history would prove Benjamin Franklin correct. The sun was indeed rising on the American Republic that day.
Political Institutions Are Vital
That our representative democracy has survived for 229 years is due in no small part to the work of Franklin and his colleagues in Philadelphia that summer. The Constitution has been remarkably resilient in the face of incredible challenges. While not perfect, it is the reason why the American experiment in self-government has succeeded to this day.
Alexander Hamilton tells us why in Federalist 9. The institutions established by the Constitution “are means, and powerful means, by which the excellences of republican government may be retained, and its imperfections lessened or avoided.” Specifically, Hamilton singled out institutions like bicameralism (dividing Congress between the House of Representatives and the Senate), separation of powers (dividing the government’s power between the legislative, executive, and judiciary), and federalism (maintaining separate spheres for the state and national governments).
Taken together, these institutions create the space where Americans conduct politics. They make it possible for a diverse people to communicate across their differences, resolve their disagreements, and forge compromises.
Conflict is Inescapable
Yet despite this, we increasingly look elsewhere today to prevail in political debates and impose our preferred outcomes on our opposition.
The reason? We as a people have become averse to conflict.
The problem is that resolving disagreement, by definition, invokes conflict. Without it, there would be nothing to resolve. Everyone would simply agree.
But it is common today to see conflict as something that should be avoided instead of embraced. That makes it more likely that we see politics, and the institutions where it occurs, as the source of our dysfunction instead of its cure.
Given this, it is time to rethink how we think about politics.
Viewing political conflict from a different perspective reveals that we do not have to resign ourselves to dysfunction and gridlock in perpetuity. Acknowledging this will hopefully permit us to cast off our inhibitions and embrace conflict in the year ahead. Doing so is a necessary step to identifying consensus when it exists and to forging compromises when it does not. In contrast, trying to take conflict out of politics will only ensure that 2018 turns out just like 2017.
With this in mind, let us look to the new year confident in the knowledge that we are treading the well-worn path of those who came before us. And let us continue the work they began by conducting our politics in the institutions created by the Constitution. It may feel a bit unsettling. But welcoming conflict into our political lives will ensure that our future will continue to be brightened by a rising and not a setting sun.