As Present in Political Polarity?

Arguably, societal regression in America is particularly evident in heightened levels of a polarized public, and corresponding polarity in our elected officials. The case can be made that this polarity has steadily increased since 9/11/2001. The Presidency of Donald Trump and significant conflict over how to manage the coronavirus pandemic are simply symptoms of this emotional divide. From the perspective of Bowen theory, the case can be made that this emotional divide has more to do with rising anxiety within the populace as opposed to irreconcilable political differences. This essay explores this topic from the work of Thomas Jefferson in his MANUAL OF PARLIAMENTARY PRACTICE, which he composed while he was Vice President and presiding over the Senate.

Jefferson found himself in a tenuous position. The new Republic was not as stable as many imagined. In particular, Jefferson found himself serving with President John Adams, his political adversary. Increasingly, Adams and Jefferson were not getting along; that is, hardly speaking to one another. Further, while Adams was an expert in parliamentary process, many were convinced that Adams functioned as something of a bully when he (Adams) presided over the Senate. As Jefferson now approached his service of presiding over the Senate, Jefferson was convinced that he needed to do a better job than Adams such that mutual respect and trust would grow – not erode.

While Jefferson’s MANUAL OF PARLIAMENTARY PRACTICE was not published until the end of his service presiding over the Senate, this document well represents Jefferson’s beliefs on how to reduce emotional reactivity during a turbulent political era. During Jefferson’s service, the Vice President made a comment that public policy needed to be pursued such that elected officials were focusing on ‘principle as opposed to personality’. This distinction is now a common lament as critiques are leveled at persons (personality) with only nominal reference to the important principle that is at play. Arguably, this impulse to attack people as opposed to promote social policy is front and center in our present-day patterns of political polarization.

In Jefferson’s MANUAL OF PARLIAMENTARY PRACTICE, the preamble is most significant. It reads,

Mr. Onslow, the ablest among the Speakers of the House of Commons, used to say, ‘‘It was a maxim he had often heard when he was a young man, from old and experienced Members, that nothing tended more to throw power into the hands of administration, and those who acted with the majority of the House of Commons, than a neglect of, or departure from, the rules of proceeding; that these forms, as instituted by our ancestors, operated as a check and control on the actions of the majority, and that they were, in many instances, a shelter and protection to the minority, against the attempts of power.’’ So far the maxim is certainly true, and is founded in good sense, that as it is always in the power of the majority, by their numbers, to stop any improper measures proposed on the part of their opponents, the only weapons by which the minority can defend themselves against similar attempts from those in power are the forms and rules of proceeding which have been adopted as they were found necessary, from time to time, and are become the law of the House, by a strict adherence to which the weaker party can only be protected from those irregularities and abuses which these forms were intended to check, and which the wantonness of power is but too often apt to suggest to large and successful majorities. And whether these forms be in all cases the most rational or not is really not of so great importance. It is much more material that there should be a rule to go by than what that rule is; that there may be a uniformity of proceeding in business not subject to the caprice of the Speaker or captiousness of the members. It is very material that order, decency, and regularity be preserved in a dignified public body.

So, what is Jefferson saying? I think Jefferson is making two points that can be restated in terms of Bowen theory. First, Jefferson is asserting that there is a measure of emotional reactivity that easily threatens the governing process. One symptom of chronic anxiety, whereby officials no longer trust their opponents, becomes expressed when a ‘majority’ assume such control or dominance over the political processes (rules) that the voice of the minority is essentially squashed. Parliamentary rules ensure that the majority rules, but also that fair practices (rules) ensure that the voice of the minority will forever be protected. Emotional process in governance is so powerful that there is an enduring temptation for the majority to not only rule, but to dominate. To Jefferson, it was important that neither the Federalists, not the Republicans (his party) should dominate.

In the contemporary domain, this may be seen in either political party seeking to attain a “super majority” such that they can essentially dominate the political process and thereby overpower and ignore the voice of the minority. Arguably, this took place in recent years in the State Legislature of North Carolina, whereby a “super majority” functioned for years as if they were the only elected officials, and could utterly ignore the ‘other’ party. Far beyond altering public policy, the actions of the legislative super-majority initiated growing hostility in which the voice of the minority was consistently dismissed. Essentially, parliamentary rules were dismissed once one party became a “super-majority”. Everything that happened in North Carolina was ‘legal’, but just as clearly what happened was the result of ‘not being able to trust the other party’. Contempt grew exponentially.

Second, Jefferson makes the astonishing comment that “whether these forms be in all cases the most rational or not is really not of so great importance…”. Jefferson is asserting that even if the Senate composes poor rules, nevertheless such ‘less rational’ rules are better than no rules at all. In other words, when regression dominates the public domain, even substandard rules are superior to no rules at all. What we are observing today in the public domain is almost like ‘no rules at all’. There is such distrust in the ‘other’ (whether that other is Republican or Democrat) that emotional energy is applied to silencing the other in the supposed name of saving the Republic. To be sure, there will always be a few public officials that have such contempt for their opponent, be they liberal or conservative, that their emotional energy is directed more at limiting their opponent than promoting their take on principle. But what happens when it is not ‘a few’ who share this contempt, but the majority? This distinction, between principle and personality, may be subtle, but in a more polarized world this discrepancy becomes plainly evident.

Jefferson’s MANUAL OF PARLIAMENTARY PRACTICE, not unlike Robert’s Rules of Order, may seem like a dry list of parliamentary rules. These rules may seem boring. In fact, I believe they were written due to a significant measure of chronic anxiety that was generating greater emotional fusion throughout the country such that a relatively fragile nation was actually on the verge of schism. In the contemporary scheme of things, Democrats are crying out for Federal leadership to address a racial reckoning as well as bold action in addressing climate change. Meanwhile, Republicans have an equal and opposite cry for fiscal responsibility and less governmental intervention in the private lives of Americans. This debate, over greater and lesser Federal intervention, is nothing new. What is new is not the debate on public policy, but the level of distrust (chronic anxiety) that pervades the populace.

What this suggests is that both the Democratic and Republican agenda are of secondary importance in the modern era – a proposition that few if any leaders are willing to assert. What is essential, perhaps indispensable, is the ability of our governing leaders to see that their distrust of the other is more threatening than the policies being promoted by the opposing party. Unless we learn again how to disagree with a measure of common respect, as opposed to wanton contempt, we are condemning our children to inherit an emotional process that may, in fact, destroy of progeny. Unless our leaders move beyond ‘Us vs. Them’, there may be no ‘them’ to preserve.