In Praise of Partisan Rancor

A few days ago, the New Yorker‘s George Packer lamented that “the thrill is gone” from American politics and it’s just no fun any more.

As I recall, the “fun” of politics for the left has usually been the fun of smearing those of us on the right as racist and regressive and “extremist,” a term which means “outside the narrow band of debate I would like to allow.” And so, predictably, Packer’s list of complaints about American politics centers on “the extremism of the Republican Party”; the substantive issues he would like us to focus on are largely the favorite issues of the left, like inequality and global warming; and he ends with a “wish list” which consists of wishing that politics would move sharply to the left. (He is likely to be disappointed.)

In other words, politics isn’t much fun when you’re side isn’t winning. In other news, water is still wet.

More deeply, the problem with Packer’s complaint is this: politics is not supposed to be “fun.” It’s not supposed to be a thrill. Nor is it supposed to be a land of comity in which everyone agrees—quite the opposite. It is supposed to be a blood sport.

Politics is supposed to be a contest between opposing ideologies, with the highest stakes: it is a contest about the use of government force—who gets to wield it, under what circumstances, and for what purposes.

Some folks on the left get super-confused about this and try to avoid facing up to the brute fact that government is about coercion. Which is why they like to limit the debate to within an accepted range so they won’t have to defend the fundamentally coercive nature of their agenda. I suspect that’s a big part of the reason Packer is so sore: a nascent radical small-government contingent calls into question issues that the left-leaning establishment would like to regard as settled.

But they aren’t settled. There are those, like me, whose “extremism” consists of the view that government should be extremely limited in its use of coercion, that government force should only be used to protect our rights against the private use of force. Most conservatives are not so absolute, but they at least preserve a stigma against government force: it is a necessary evil, to be used only for profound and intractable problems and only when there is no better alternative. (Which is the basic idea behind the religious freedom laws that are suddenly so controversial.) Then there is the left, which embraces government coercion more widely and with few exceptions—fewer and fewer, it seems, each decade.

Are the political debates over these issues contentious, bitter, unpleasant, intractable, and no fun whatsoever? Good! They should be. They should be about as much fun as the conflict between an armed robber and his victim, because at root they are about the same thing. One side wants to use force to get the other side to do its will. The other side wants to resist.

Politics in a free society is a contest about force, but fortunately it is not a context of force. It is carried out through peaceable, non-coercive means, which is the great virtue of representative government. This is why attempts to achieve political victory through coercion—for example, by limiting “offensive” speech—should meet with maximum resistance. But the fact that our debates are peaceful doesn’t mean they have to be friendly.

As I pointed out recently, the right makes the left angry because we are thwarting their attempt to create the perfect social organization by overthrowing existing social institutions and redesigning various aspects of human life. They know the way things ought to be, and here we are messing it up by resisting them.

By the same token, the left wants to overthrow existing social institutions and redesign our lives. It wants to do the two things most likely to tick people off: taking their money and telling them what to do. And they wonder why they face a public backlash against their agenda.

Politics is not a game. When the government uses force, people get killed, their lives are disrupted, they are impoverished, harassed, inconvenienced. The underlying reality is grim, so the way we deal with it should also be a little bit grim. Parties should be lining up on these issues, taking sides, and beating the heck out of each other. It is the job of the opposition to oppose.

So yes, please, more partisan rancor and obstruction. This isn’t supposed to be fun.

Unless, of course, our side is winning.

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