Once again Greg Weiner has raised the bar for superb writing and thinking for this new venture, The Constitutionalist. I am honored to be mentioned in his stunningly well written essay. The idea corruption of corruption is original and brilliant.
Following his lead, I would like to jump off of his essay, adding some thoughts prompted by it rather than argue with it. I agree with his synoptic depiction and with the advice he gleans from it.
At this moment in American political history, it is also important to note the striking asymmetry of partisanship in the United States. For most of American history it makes sense to guard ourselves against the tendency to assume corruption lies behind the partisan positions with which we disagree. Even now, it may not be corruption but something else that lies behind contending partisan positions, as Greg Weiner astutely reminds us.
But it is vital to note that polarization — the usual term for the widening ideological difference between the parties– no longer accurately describes the division we experience today. In their important recent book, A Lot of People Are Saying: The New Conspiracism, Russell Muirhead and Nancy Rosenblum show that a kind of epistemological polarity has supplanted ideological polarization. They mean by this that one side — the Republican party by and large– embraces or tolerates fiction in the place of facts. The division is between two understandings of reality rather than between two ways to interpret or contend with the same political world. They show that while conspiracy thinking has always been a part of American politics, and indeed some conspiracies have been found to be true, conspiracism is something new. Conspiracism is conspiracy without the theory. Instead of trying to explain anomaly, conspiracists make up the world that they then pretend to explain. This is a very deep form of corruption that is not a projection from the other side.
The second asymmetry that marks our time is hyper-partisanship — the idea that the party opposite should be opposed no matter what they propose, even if the proposal would advance ones own previous bill or favored idea. Opposing ones own policy projects if advanced by the other side in order to deny or share credit in the hope of retaining or regaining power is hyper-partisanship. As Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein have shown in Its Even Worse Than It Looks, this is mainly a pathology of the Republican party. Instances can be found among Democrats, too, but relatively few. So, again, this is an asymmetrical problem and another source of deep institutional corruption in our time.
President-Elect Joe Biden seems to understand the lesson that Greg Weiner teaches. One meaning of Biden’s promise to be a transitional president is that he wants to restore normal political discourse and normal political contest. As he says repeatedly, he wants to represent all of the American people, not just those who voted for him. The asymmetrical aspects of corruption in our time will make his project unusually challenging.