10/13/2013 12:17 pm ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

A Test for Republican Government

"Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity."

- William Butler Yeats

For some years now, and increasingly in the last few weeks, Americans have watched their national government approach the precipice of operational and financial disaster with a mix of fascination, worry, incredulity and disgust. A government that is shut down and that may soon default, unable to pay for all the commitments it has made, is a clear sign that it is failing the American people. But that is not the worst of it.

The current political situation is a signal to the world that republican government, that "government of the people, by the people, and for the people" that Lincoln reminded us at Gettysburg was the ultimate work for which we fought the Civil War, could still "perish from the earth."

It is a mark of the insularity of the American political class, and too many others in America, that we careen from crisis to crisis without understanding the implication for our place, our voice, and our power in the world. For it is not just our internal politics or economics that is at stake, though those stakes would be high enough. What, actually, is America a beacon for in the world today? Constitutional government, political stability, economic soundness, courageous leadership - would not seem answers that would (though they should) come to mind.

Aristotle noted that the best character - and thus the most virtuous - was one that had been shaped to achieve the middle ground between two extremes. Courage was thus seen as the midpoint between an excess, known as rashness, and a deficit, known as cowardice. Yeats touched on that idea when he noted that the centre cannot hold when confronted on the one extreme by those with passionate intensity and on the other by those without conviction. Though he wrote that in 1919, after the First World War had provided ample evidence of his fear, it seems apt today. Such is the power of insight into the darkness to which human behavior can too easily fall.

Where are courage and the centre in our political world today? On the extreme right, we face those willing to shut down the government and default on our debt in order to eliminate a 2.3% tax on medical devices (thus increasing the deficit which they rail against) and allow contraception to be withheld by those who object to dispensing it. On the extreme left, we face those willing to produce the same results because they think that entitlements should never be cut and because they believe they can finally "win," on the logic that the blame for chaos will fall on their opponents at the next election. If these views do not define rashness, it is hard to imagine what does.

On the moderate right, we have politicians who know that the country deserves better and that the damage to America could be incalculable, but they refuse to publicly countermand their more conservative colleagues. On the moderate left, we have politicians who know that American wealth cannot sustain American appetites but who refuse to publicly say so to the American people or their more liberal colleagues. If these actions do not define cowardice, it is hard to imagine what does.

American works when there is a political center. The absence of such a center today is a child that has many parents. Politically-driven redistricting that produces seats "safe" for extremists on the right and the left is just one of them. Media and political advertising that produce what psychologists call "group polarization" - the tendency of people to adopt more extreme views the more they communicate only with those who tend to agree with them - is another. The tendency of big money, from wherever it comes, to drive us to extreme views that benefit its parochial interests but ignore their short-term impact on others and their long-term impact on our fiscal, political, and social sanity is yet another. These must be fixed if a political center is going to become more easily found. But we cannot wait for that.

In his Farewell Address in 1796, George Washington warned about the dangers of "faction" and "the spirit of party." It is worth quoting him at some length:

"The alternate domination of one faction over another, sharpened by the spirit of revenge, natural to party dissension, which in different ages and countries has perpetrated the most horrid enormities, is itself a frightful despotism. But this leads at length to a more formal and permanent despotism. The disorders and miseries which result gradually incline the minds of men to seek security and repose in the absolute power of an individual; and sooner or later the chief of some prevailing faction, more able or more fortunate than his competitors, turns this disposition to the purposes of his own elevation, on the ruins of public liberty."

It is time for politicians of all strands to recognize the danger with which they are flirting. The belief that extremism can achieve its ends while preserving public liberty flies in the face of too much of recorded history to be seriously entertained in this nation. Courage, not rashness or cowardice, to achieve the political center is the only thing that stands between us and anarchy being "loosed upon the world."

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