Divided by a Common Enemy


The left and right in America share more than they want to admit. Their divisions appear very quickly after their agreements, but at bottom, their fears are held in common. A little history:

Elihu Root

Elihu Root was the leading corporate lawyer in America during the Gilded Age, as Samuel Clemens dubbed it, the time of the robber barons. Root was, of course, a Republican, and he served two presidents as secretary of war and Theodore Roosevelt as secretary of state. In 1906, speaking to the Pennsylvania Society of New York, Root traced the erosion of states’ rights. To his credit, he attributed the erosion correctly – to the abdication of responsibility by the states, leaving certain services and regulatory functions vacant, to be filled by the only other capable power, which was the federal government. When the states failed in protecting civil rights, the federal government stepped in. The federal government also regulates banking (although none too zealously, these days), even state-chartered banks, through the Federal Reserve and the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp.

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Clemens himself, one of the greatest writers in American history and perhaps its greatest philosopher as well, took note. He linked Root’s address to what he took as a universally human impulse to worship people of wealth and power; the more they despise the rabble, the more the rabble tend to worship them. In Clemens’ fertile mind, state governments were closer to the people than the federation, so the diminution of state prerogatives, paired with the creation of aristocracy, tended to lead toward monarchy:

I suppose we must expect that unavoidable and irresistible Circumstances will gradually take away the powers of the States and concentrate them in the central government, and that the republic will then repeat the history of all time and become a monarchy; but I believe that if we obstruct these encroachments and steadily resist them then the monarchy can be postponed for a good while yet.

Maybe the great Mark Twain was right, and maybe it is a miracle that in the 103 years since his death, we have not succumbed to monarchy. Unless, that is, the haters of President Obama are correct in assessing him a tyrant. The point is, Twain feared state power held by a single person and thought that centralization of power in a federal government would lead to just that. Conservatives think that way.

Liberals, on the other hand, tend to think of a strong central government as the surest protection against tyranny by corporations, by a self-interested majority, or by regional or demographic bigotry.

So the truth is that the right and the left in this country both operate from fear of the same thing, which is tyranny. They just identify its agents in opposing ways.

Hannah Arendt

As an ironic aside, much of the international community looks at America itself in one of two ways. The first is as a dying empire, and the second is as a force of international totalitarianism in the Hannah Arendt sense: an amoral, power-driven beast bent on ever more domination and destined to consume the world.

The greater irony, though, is perhaps to be found in the internal struggle between two groups in fear – one in fear of powerful government, the other in fear of the consequences of weaker government. The former group are arming themselves at an alarmingly rapid rate; the latter, trying to disarm as many dangerous people as possible, as fast as possible.

Both groups catch the scent of insidious and dangerous change, signaling the loss of some kind of liberty. Both of them suspect that something has already changed dramatically, perhaps irrevocably. Change of a fundamental nature usually happens before people are generally aware of it.

Left and right are, doubtless, correct in what they agree on – the fear of losing liberty — but their strategies for dealing with it differ in their targets, and so are probably irreconcilable. This all points toward dire conflict, and it explains the polarization of American politics.