If the U.S. Constitution disappeared today, we would be wholly incapable of making a new one.
Think about that for a minute or two.
The document underlying history’s most durable and successful democracy emerged from people with sharp disagreements about how the powers they would entrust to governments should be allocated. But they were unanimous in their dedication to creating a process that could ensure liberty by balancing and controlling those powers over time and through changing circumstances.
Accomplishing that goal required levels of comity and compromise that are clearly beyond the reach of today’s American society. Are we even capable of maintaining the process we inherited, much less trying to re-create it? Can we remain a nation of laws rather than deteriorating into a nation of men?
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That such questions arise testifies to the sorry condition of our politics, but that condition is only a reflection of the hearts and minds of those involved in public life directly through their actions and those involved indirectly by their inaction. The blame goes all around.
Somehow after the 225-year transition from a sliver of a new nation along the Eastern Seaboard of the continent to the most militarily powerful and economically successful nation on Earth, we have arrived at a point, almost suddenly it seems, of political impotency.
The marketplace of ideas from which the Constitution emerged was a place where debate about correct versus incorrect, good versus better, better versus perfect eventually informed consensual decisions.
That Constitution guided us through a near-disastrous civil war, two world wars separated by the Great Depression, the civil rights era, the urban strife of the ’60s and ’70s, the nuclear age and the defeat of communism.
More fragile democracies would have folded at several points; ours did not. The marketplace of ideas – the place of “free and open encounter” that allowed truth to prevail over falsity, or at least reason to prevail over unreasoning ideology – worked. But, at the pinnacle of our success as a nation, we allowed that marketplace to be corrupted.
Our centuries of debate about correct versus incorrect, good versus better and better versus perfect morphed first into declarations of right versus wrong and, finally and most ominously, into pronouncements of good versus evil.
Political disagreements over “liberal” versus “conservative” goals and policies need not be falsely framed as good versus evil, but they are in fact calculatingly framed that way because absolutism and intransigence suit the selfish motives of the individuals and political groups that have turned the marketplace of ideas into just another opportunity to accumulate power and wealth.
When good versus evil became the heart of our political calculus, we dismantled the national genetic code that made us great – and tolerant of disagreement. Millions of Americans have abandoned that marketplace because ideologues made participation in it too uncomfortable and destructive of goodwill and understanding among people, within families and in workplaces and social gatherings.
When every disagreement is seen as good versus evil, we create a conscienceless state of mind in which there can be only one desirable outcome: My good must destroy your evil.
That mindset is why Sunnis and Shiites have been killing one another for a thousand years, with no end in sight. And that mindset, left unreformed, can – and will – destroy democracy.
Davis Merritt, a Wichita journalist and author, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.