Thomas Jefferson, when asked by Francis Hopkinton whether he identified as a Federalist or an Anti-Federalist, tritely replied that he was neither. The American Renaissance Man replied with a disdain that is palpable even today, “I never submitted the whole system of my opinions to the creed of any party of men whatever in religion, in philosophy, in politics, or in anything else where I am capable of thinking for myself.”
I’ve always thought Jefferson- a personal hero of mine- was only half correct in his quip. There is nothing inherently wrong with political parties so long as they are rooted in a strong, cohesive platform. Jefferson, to my estimation, was conflating politics and philosophy, two terms which are often used interchangeably but really have nothing to do with each other. Politics deals with rights and welfare of nations as a whole; it is rooted in the delineation of power outlined in foundational documents. Philosophy concerns the rights of individuals in relation with each other, rights which are derived from natural law.
If you had asked me a few months ago whether I was a Republican or Democrat I would have replied, with considerable pride, that I am a staunch conservative. I would have answered this way because I am an ideologue. My principles guide my political positions, not, as is so often the case, vice versa. But when Donald Trump became the presumptive GOP nominee, I experienced an existential crisis. Trump and his supporters voice ideas which are fundamentally at odds with limited government, laissez-faire capitalism and civil liberties, which self-identified conservatives like myself traditionally espouse. So why in 2016 is grassroots right abandoning a fifty-year philosophical tradition in favor of braggadocious interventionism? Could it be that those of us who took the ideological approach to partisan identification had been deluding ourselves, that conservative thought has fundamentally shifted since the 1960s?
No, not if Barry Goldwater is still accepted as genuine; the frustrated exhortations he outlined in The Conscience of a Conservative are as timely (references to the Soviet threat aside) as when they were written.
This certainly assuages personal pride, but does nothing towards explaining how the emotional mania of populist nativism- an almost exclusively leftist movement up until this point- hijacked the staid emotionalism of the right.
The answer lies in Jefferson’s garrulous reply to Hopkinton. When Jefferson speaks of refusing to submit his rational process to any creed of men he is flouting the conventional political wisdom of today. Modern American politics can be summarized in one word: consensus. There is a faux connection between getting along and getting things done on Capitol Hills and morality in politics. Division, often conflated with mere dissent to popular opinion, is positioned as misanthropy; the man who dares to dissent is viewed immediately as standing in the way of social progress.
But this is a view that ignores natural law and turns it on its head. Man is an individual creature. He thinks and feels for himself. First and foremost he must look to his survival when interpreting new information and situations. This means that he must, as a moral imperative, reinforce the division between himself and his fellow men. Instinctually, this is a matter of his very survival.
In 2016, much of the exigency of bodily survival has been alleviated by the blessings of modern technology. And to many this means the survival-rooted politics of division are arcane and pejorative, painted as the lingering fears of intransigent neanderthals. But this is a view that ignores spiritual life.
The soul is a chimerical creature, formed by a dialectic between the reason of the head and the emotion of the heart. These two organs have dual-sovereignty, and one cannot suppress the other without doing irreparable harm to itself. Society, with its promises of equal and impartial justice, creates a balance between men. Long-term self-interest mandates that the pursuance of individual betterment not alienate one’s neighbors who one day be imperative to survival. Each person is held in check by fear of righteous vengeance sought by the party they wronged with the help of the state. This fear is aided by the reflexivity of rights, for each man can imagine that the anger he would feel should someone injure him is mirrored by his neighbors who value the same rights. The soul, to function rightly, depends on the same balance.
Yet, modern politics demands that men sacrifice the prick of conscience. Principles are inconvenient and divisive, hard to understand because they are significant on an individual-by-individual level and often deal in esoteric ideas unconnected to the hard statistics of legislative battles.
The result of such skewed thinking is obvious. Each successive year this approach to politics does nothing to resolve ongoing issues, yet it doubles down to on its rhetoric and in ostracizing those who dissent.
Consensus politics has been successful in one way- it has made the two parties nearly indistinguishable from each other and solidified a culture of sycophancy to dominant cultural ideas. Even conservatives have been guilty of contributing to this. We have been too comfortable in our position as dissenters. Conservatism is dead, but it is not Donald Trump who killed it. The conservatives who embraced Reaganism as the apex of the ideology and who carried him as a standard have not truly exercised ideological independence but have been living in the past.
Instead, we need to transcend temporal political considerations. It is time to stop putting so much stock in ideological labels and instead focus on the philosophy which underlies systems of thinking. We must all, as Jefferson, think for ourselves. We must all develop and stand on ideologies that represent the unique thoughts and feelings that make us individuals. This means rejecting the myth of political consensus and embracing division.