Politics is a way of ruling divided societies without undue violence.Much reminiscent of my favorite definition of justice, from Learned Hand:
the tolerable accommodation of the conflicting interests of society.Democracy is and always has been the art of compromise. And yet within all democratic societies there are people with no interest in compromise, people who think that the other side is evil and justice demands the complete victory of their own cause. Uncompromisable conflicts are very dangerous to democracies; the one over slavery nearly destroyed America and left at least 600,000 dead.
Brooks is very worried that opposition to compromise, which he calls "antipolitics," is on the rise in America. Groups like the Tea Party, he writes are not political but antipolitical:
Ultimately, they don’t recognize other people. They suffer from a form of political narcissism, in which they don’t accept the legitimacy of other interests and opinions. They don’t recognize restraints. They want total victories for themselves and their doctrine.And Donald Trump, says Brooks, is antipolitics personified:
This antipolitics tendency has had a wretched effect on our democracy. It has led to a series of overlapping downward spirals:
The antipolitics people elect legislators who have no political skills or experience. That incompetence leads to dysfunctional government, which leads to more disgust with government, which leads to a demand for even more outsiders.
The antipolitics people don’t accept that politics is a limited activity. They make soaring promises and raise ridiculous expectations. When those expectations are not met, voters grow cynical and, disgusted, turn even further in the direction of antipolitics.
The antipolitics people refuse compromise and so block the legislative process. The absence of accomplishment destroys public trust. The decline in trust makes deal-making harder.
People say that Trump is an unconventional candidate and that he represents a break from politics as usual. That’s not true. Trump is the culmination of the trends we have been seeing for the last 30 years: the desire for outsiders; the bashing style of rhetoric that makes conversation impossible; the decline of coherent political parties; the declining importance of policy; the tendency to fight cultural battles and identity wars through political means.The hardening of attitudes in American politics is indeed rather mysterious. First of all, it is not the desire of the majority; in 2012 majorities of both Republican and Democratic voters told pollsters that they wanted politicians to work together to find solutions to our problems. I think partisan gridlock is partly the result of our political system. The combination of geographic districts with a society strongly divided along sectional lines seems to multiply our partisan differences, since most Congressmen represent either deep blue cities or deep red exurbs. Plus, most Americans don't care enough to vote in primaries, leaving them to hard-core partisans.
There is also a strange, apocalyptic mood in the country. Last week I picked up a science fiction novel by a young writer that had gotten some good attention, and discovered that it was yet another post-apocalypse story about the collapse of civilization. Why has popular culture turned so dark? Some people think it is a reflection of bad economic times, but the 1930s gave us a huge explosion of happy stories and silly musicals. Against this cultural background the claims of politicians like Ted Cruz that America is "sliding over the cliff" seem almost normal. The sense of crisis fuels hard-line politics; if you think we are on the edge of disaster, you have little interest in compromise with the forces of ruin.
Given all this, I find the rise of Trump rather encouraging. Instead of an actual fascist with a private army of black shirts, we have a reality television star who likes to insult people via twitter. Trump talks tough, but I think he has less interest in political extremism than Cruz, Rubio or Sanders. I think a wall along the whole Mexican border is a little silly, but it would hardly be a grave threat to our democracy. If the result of all our political gridlock and angst is the Trump campaign, I am left feeling that things could be a whole lot worse.