The Age of Trump: Graham, Madison, and Hart Weigh In

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.
"The Signing of the Constitution of the United States," by Howard Chandler Christy (Wikimedia)

Over the weekend a Washington Post op-ed titled “We Must Weed Out Ignorant Voters from the Electorate” got a lot of negative attention, including from me. And on reflection I still don’t agree with the surface-level argument of the piece, which is that people who don’t know enough about civics should be denied the vote. There’s too long an American history of struggles over the franchise to welcome an argument couched this way.

But here is the part of the argument that does strike a chord with me. It is the reminder that overconfidence about civics, by everyone, is part of what makes this election cycle an unsettling and potentially dangerous one. Let me explain:

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Any exposure to American history offers reminders that public affairs in the country have often been in bad shape. The latest in the very long shelf of Lincoln biographies, A Self-Made Man by Sidney Blumenthal, takes its protagonist only to age 40 but offers a very vivid look at the close-run struggles over economic policy, tariffs and national banks, nation-building and nullification, and of course the extension of slavery in the 1830s and 1840s. The country would have been much worse off if several of those struggles had gone the other way, and of course it nearly came apart during the Civil War. Even beyond that unparalleled emergency, pick your decade and you can pick your crisis in the performance of the American government, the injustices of the American economy, and the cruelties or blind spots of American society. Things have always been dicey.

(Yes, this is the same Sidney Blumenthal you’re thinking of; read this engrossing book before you assume anything about it or him. For the record, he’s a longtime friend of mine.)

But because the United States is now such an old country, considered as a system of government, and because after all the turmoil it has ended up as the strongest and most resilient of nations, it’s very hard not to assume that whatever is today’s crisis will work itself out. Through my conscious lifetime American society has seemed on the verge of blowing up at least half a dozen times. The episodes have passed; the caravan moves on.

With the accumulating evidence of disasters-avoided, it’s also tempting to assume that the recovery process is natural, and organic. And to some extent that’s true: the United States is a shambling entity that can absorb a lot. But I’ve come to think that it’s dangerous to let the mechanics of recovery and self-correction drift out of view. Because the United States has withstood so much, it’s natural to think it will automatically keep doing so, and not to pay attention to the rules, norms, and values that have allowed a loose, diverse, small-l liberal democracy to do as well as it has.

Thus three diverse, dissimilar readings on the mechanics of self-government, in the age of Trump and also the age of Hamilton:

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The first is an analysis published eight years ago, Paul Graham’s “How to Disagree.” Graham lays out a seven-level “Disagreement Hierarchy,” from the least- to most-enlightening ways to deal with differences of opinion. (Yes, I’m aware that other versions of this analysis have appeared elsewhere.)

At the top, as the most useful sort of disagreement, is Graham’s Level 6, “Refuting the Central Point.” You take on your opponent’s argument in its strongest and most accurate form, and you explain why it’s wrong. At the bottom, on Level 0, is the most destructive and divisive form of disagreement, simple “Name-calling.” Graham explains thus:

This is the lowest form of disagreement, and probably also the most common. We've all seen comments like this:
          u r a fag!!!!!!!!!!
But it's important to realize that more articulate name-calling has just as little weight. A comment like
        The author is a self-important dilettante.
is really nothing more than a pretentious version of "u r a fag."

The civics-related point: think how much of this cycle’s discussion has taken place on Level 0.

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The second is something published almost 230 years ago. This is Federalist #10, from the Federalist Papers by Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay, laying out the logic of the new Constitution. #10 is by Madison.

At some point in schooling most people have had some exposure to the Federalist Papers. This one, about the risks of “faction,” deserves notice because of the new oomph it has in campaign year 2016. Specifically, it is important for showing the long-standing concern about the fragility of the system the Federalists were designing, and the need for conscious attention to its underpinnings. Eg:

The latent causes of faction are thus sown in the nature of man; and we see them everywhere brought into different degrees of activity, according to the different circumstances of civil society.

A zeal for different opinions concerning religion, concerning government, and many other points, as well of speculation as of practice; an attachment to different leaders ambitiously contending for pre-eminence and power; or to persons of other descriptions whose fortunes have been interesting to the human passions, have, in turn, divided mankind into parties, inflamed them with mutual animosity, and rendered them much more disposed to vex and oppress each other than to co-operate for their common good.

So strong is this propensity of mankind to fall into mutual animosities, that where no substantial occasion presents itself, the most frivolous and fanciful distinctions have been sufficient to kindle their unfriendly passions and excite their most violent conflicts….

It is in vain to say that enlightened statesmen will be able to adjust these clashing interests, and render them all subservient to the public good. Enlightened statesmen will not always be at the helm.

Nor, in many cases, can such an adjustment be made at all without taking into view indirect and remote considerations, which will rarely prevail over the immediate interest which one party may find in disregarding the rights of another or the good of the whole.

The inference to which we are brought is, that the causes of faction cannot be removed, and that relief is only to be sought in the means of controlling its effects.

And on through a famous analysis “the means of controlling the effects” of faction. Why do I mention this? Because our politics of the moment proceeds as if there is no difference among the different levels of argument, and our governance is proceeding (or, not proceeding) as if the damage of faction can be waved away. A refusal even to consider nominees for the Supreme Court? It’s normalized as part of today’s partisan battle, rather than regarded as a specimen of the problem the Federalists hoped to avoid.

[Update because of a late night brain-freeze typo, I originally wrote that Federalist #10 was by Hamilton. Of course it’s by Madison, and is one of the most famous and carefully studied of his essays.]

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Third is an item posted not eight years ago nor 230 but rather this weekend. It’s by Gary Hart — former Senator, former leading presidential candidate, ongoing defense expert and blogger. He writes about what the fraying of civility has meant, in practical terms, to today’s operational politics. A sample:

Civility is the name we give to mutual respect, decency, and honor among men and women.  Like civilization itself, civility evolves over time.  It is utilitarian in that societies function best when civility is the norm.  But its deeper meaning has to do with the nature of humanity.  When civility breaks down, societies fall apart. ...

Political civility began to crack two or three decades ago.  Coded language was used to give resentment a voice…

The new media, first non-stop partisan cable, then the startling rise of an array of social media, caused traditional media outlets, print and electronic, to abandon professional standards and join the mad hunt for “the story” at the cost of the privacy of public servants and eventually the very caliber of those willing to seek office….

This perfect storm inevitably brought wide-spread resentment, political candidates proudly proclaiming their ignorance, and desperately voracious media outlets together in 2016.  

Donald Trump didn’t invent all of this.  He was simply clever enough to stand outside, watch the storm gathering, and then give it voice.

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To sum it up: the United States has withstood a lot, and will probably withstand what it is going through now. But its resilience is not automatic, and should not be taken for granted. The fundamentals of its civic structure deserve as much attention as the latest campaign-trail insult.