“Obama!” Mr. J grumbled, shaking his head and wrinkling his nose. “Obama, Obama, Obama!” Mr. J was known in the hospital as a frequent flier for his heroin abuse. Now, though, his use of dirty needles had landed him in my ICU with a life-threatening bacterial infection in his bloodstream. As his fever raged, he became so delirious that he could not tell me where he was, the year, or even his own name. Each time I asked him to recall the then-sitting president, however, he nailed it—and with rote disdain. Apparently, the deadly microbes saturating this man’s blood could make him forget his own identity, but they could not outmatch the regnant toxins of party loyalty swimming alongside them.
America today finds itself in extremis from a syndrome analogous to Mr. J’s septicemic encephalopathy. The coronavirus has arrested vital organs of our society, making it difficult to even recognize our own country. Yet what remains evident despite the pathogen—what gives proof through this night that our flag is still there—is the thick miasma of our rotting politics.
It should surprise no one that Americans view the federal response to the ongoing crisis through the lens of party allegiances. It should trouble us all, however, that the political theater of red versus blue keeps extending further offstage. Routinely, now, the officials charged with protecting our health ignore epidemiological certainty for the sake of ideological purity. Sectarian interest groups and media outlets likewise show no penitence in amplifying misinformation about miracle cures for political ends. With institutions of state and civil society directing the gunfire instead of calling the shots, how can we expect the public to not follow suit?
Our nation does indeed face an existential sickness, but it is not the one that came from Wuhan. Rather, it is the chronic disease of our polarization, congenital in etiology, and relapsing-remitting in course. Its malignant sequelae have now come to their apogee in the form of our first partisan pandemic.
George Washington famously warned us of such rampant partisanship, calling it a “fatal tendency” of democracy itself. Washington recognized that individuals so passionate about liberty as to demand self-governance would inevitably have differences of political opinion on the contours of that autonomy. And as those differences veered to extremes, he worried, they would cultivate increasingly indefensible vices over diminishingly trivial matters, letting factional conflict slip into internecine warfare.
How, then, should freethinking societies like ours grapple with hyperpartisanship? The Founders deliberated on “the proper antidote for the diseases of faction” at great length. Their remedy, they concluded, was not bipartisanship or nonpartisanship, but rather partisanship with a dose of temperance.
For them, however, temperance did not simply mean the practice of moderation, as in our modern understanding. They conceptualized it instead in the Aristotelian tradition, which posited that most moral virtues lie midway between polar vices of deficiency and excess. On the spectrum of insensibility and over-indulgence, temperance was the virtuous median of self-restraint. The Athenians had concluded that our baser instincts will invariably pull us to overindulge in otherwise innocuous appetitions or succumb to obviously corrosive ones. A tempered mind, though, could avert these self-destructive behaviors by vetoing the gratification of Dionysian desire with the authority of Apollonian reason.
The Founders similarly determined that, in free societies, there will always be alluring personal and partisan zeals that could threaten collective interests. Instead of eradicating partisanship, then, they aimed to restrain it from destructive hyperactivity. They inoculated our inchoate republic with tempering constitutional devices like the separation of powers, parallel judiciaries, and bicameral legislature. But they also knew that the enterprise of democracy required a citizenry with solemn and vigilant adherence to the regimen of temperance.
Unfortunately, our generation has seen that solemnity wane and vigil waver. Restraint and moderation are now political dirty words. The surest measure of our temperance today might be the sound of textbooks on antimalarial pharmacology getting reshelved as scriptures of partisan canons. Untempered during a civilizational scale health emergency, our baser instincts have indeed only exacerbated the tragedy.
Yet, there is cause for hope. As ICU survivors like Mr. J often profess, a tryst with mortality can be redemptive. It can demulsify the greasy trifles often clogging our lives, allowing what truly matters to flow forth. In Mr. J’s case, even before his discharge from the hospital, I saw that something had been stirred within him. In the months after nearly dying in that ICU, Mr. J went on to quit abusing drugs, start adhering to his medications, begin healthier habits, and even mend broken relationships. Psychologists characterize this as a leap from peri-contemplative states to those of determination and action. Mr. J repeatedly described it to me as his “wake-up call.”
This moment is our national wake-up call. As the pandemic begins to abate and before a semblance of normalcy takes hold, we have a window for atonement. Now is the time to open our eyes to the dire consequences of our hyperpolarization, and end our noncompliance with its established remedy. Yes, our barriers feel irredeemably calcified; but we must realize that they are not bred in our bones. In truth, as much as they divide us today, our unyielding passions are what brought us together for self-governance in the first place. They belie a latent unity—if only we could temper them enough to notice.
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