French-style Polarization in the U.S.?

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October 2012

By David T. Koyzis

Is America becoming the next France? Is our political system becoming as polarized as that of the French Third and Fourth Republics? 

According to the late British political scientist, Sir Bernard Crick, politics is the art of conciliating diversity peacefully in a given unit of rule. Some political systems have done this better than others. The U.S. is among the more successful in enabling people of varying interests and viewpoints to get along within a common constitutional framework commanding near universal loyalty.

Until recently the political parties themselves played a role similar to that of the system as a whole. Yes, Democrats and Republicans were opponents, but each party was a broad-based coalition of citizens with a variety of commonalities—some economic, and some ideological, regional and religious in character. Progressives and conservatives found a place in both parties, coexisting willingly, if not always enthusiastically. Southerners tended to vote Democratic, while northerners voted Republican. Different Christian denominations were at home in each party as well: Catholics and Southern Baptists supported the Democrats, and northern mainline and evangelical Protestants the Republicans.

This stood in contrast to continental Europe, whose parties were more ideologically and even religiously differentiated. After the French Revolution, European polities were increasingly divided between traditional Christians and secularists, and this cleavage was reflected in their political parties. Christian democratic parties faced off against liberal and socialist parties in election campaigns as well as in parliaments. In the Netherlands and Belgium these parties were able to come to a modus vivendi, sharing power for purposes of good governance, agreeing to disagree where possible for long periods. In France, by contrast, traditionalists and secularist republicans battled it out from 1789 until the 1960s, producing a sharply divided polity, a series of unstable regimes and well over a hundred short-lived governments.

In this 21st century, could the U.S. be drawing closer to the French pattern? Consider the evidence. Over the past 30 years traditional Catholics, evangelicals, confessional Protestants and Mormons have gravitated towards the Republican Party, which supports many of their concerns, including the status of marriage, the protection of life in the womb and opposition to euthanasia. By contrast, as Louis Bolce and Gerald de Maio noted a decade ago, the Democratic Party is increasingly controlled by those failing to understand some of the commitments of the traditionally religious, mistakenly regarding pro-lifers, for example, as outside the American mainstream. The two parties seem to have hardened along religious lines, with Democrats and Republicans decreasingly willing to treat each other as fellow citizens worthy to be heard.

In France the intense rivalry between the two groups brought out their ugly sides. The republicans were anticlerical, eventually seizing church property in 1905 on the pretext of separating church and state, whereas traditionalists were marred by anti-Semitic and fascist sympathies in the inter-war era.

In the United States, some Democrats appear to have no qualms about forcing employers to fund contraceptives against their religious objections. Given that Roman Catholics were once a reliable component of the Democrats’ support base, one can hardly imagine Franklin Roosevelt or Harry Truman mandating coverage of sterilization and abortion-inducing drugs over the bishops’ objections. On the other hand, some Republicans have trotted out the radical libertarian ideas of Ayn Rand, who extolled the virtue of selfishness and openly embraced atheism. Even among those less enamored of Rand, there is a pronounced streak of individualism hostile to environmental and other needed regulations and attaching near utopian expectations to the free market’s efficacy.

In the midst of what James Davison Hunter has called the culture wars, Americans—and  especially American Christians—would do well to revisit the legacy of the Dutch statesman Abraham Kuyper, whose name has been enlisted in the culture wars by many, including the late Chuck Colson. To be sure, there are still political battles worth fighting. But perhaps we should pay more attention to the side of Kuyper who was willing, in Hugh Heclo’s words, to think institutionally and cooperate, where possible, across partisan boundaries. This could serve to soften the extremisms in both parties and encourage greater civility. If, on the other hand, we insist on victory for our side at the expense of our political institutions, we should not be surprised if we become more divided along historic French lines.

—David T. Koyzis is an American citizen teaching politics at Redeemer University College in Canada. He is the author of Political Visions and Illusions (2003) and has completed a second book on authority, office and the image of God, for which he is seeking a publisher.

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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion.