Ein Volk, Ein Reich... National Socialist slogan

‘It must be changed, we don’t care how.’ It is a period in which people are ready to welcome any stirring event, even if it be a catastrophe.Martin Fuchs, The Death of Austria (1939)

Politics is, like diplomacy, an unending enterprise in which there are no final solutions, involving the representation of interests within a larger framework of shared ideas and principles. When the conversation is successful, that larger framework tempers or even dominates the conversation. It would be possible to argue that in the Middle Ages haunting norms of justice and a rhetoric of the common good born of a universal Christian presupposition tempered the ever-present contest of interests. But interests there always are. The great cornerstone of English polity, Magna Carta, represented a resolution of the interests of the great barons and the Church with the interests of King John.

Very often interests are represented by parties. In Athens the patricians organized against the perioikoi, the less well-off suburbanites. In Rome politics was determined by the contest between the optimates and the populares. In Constantinople the differing interests of the blues and greens affected the palace and the hippodrome. In Italy and throughout the empire there were papal Guelphs and anti-papal Ghibellines. In eighteenth-century Europe, there was the country party against the court party. Dealing with interests, containing them within a workable context of justice, or at least social peace, is the arduous task of politicians.

But in order for the political conversation to go on successfully, there must exist some at least nugatory moral framework. All parties must agree that their opponents are men of some degree of good will, neither utterly knavish nor intractably foolish. And all must agree that at the margins government by perjury, election fixing, and putsch is unacceptable. Though these from time to time may occur, they are pathologies to be avoided because they signal the breakdown of conversation. For it is a complicated conversation with a delicate balance, requiring time to secure its perfecting. It is not merely voting, not plebiscitary democracy, that has marked the political genius of the West, but the ability first to admit that this patient, often time-consuming conversation is essential to the good of the state and then to maintain both the framework and the will to persist in the conversation.

What the framework is and how it is to be maintained are at best mysteries, not impenetrable but mysterious still. For culture is a complex tapestry of presuppositions about God, man and nature that originate in the dialectic between a million hearts and the laws and customs and institutions thus created, which institutions then, at least for a time, while these laws and customs live in mind and imagination, reflect and reinforce the personal, creating a common civilization and hence a framework within which politics can go on.

Two circumstances in particular will always endanger civil discourse. The agreed framework may disappear, so that the conversation no longer occurs among a field of commonly held values and ideals. The political conversation is then likely to become raucous, irrational, and fragmented, spiraling downward toward the breakdown called revolution. In modern times the collapse of the liberal states established by the Treaty of Versailles almost universally illustrated this abandonment of the political conversation because the commonality on which politics must proceed had been strained to the breaking point. By 1930 there was no common ground between Weimar, with its very modern art and morals, and the lingering tradition of German conservatism represented by the lines of black-clad, fifty-something ladies who gave the Nazi salute when Hitler’s Mercedes rolled by because Hitler would stop the rot. In Spain there was no common ground between traditional Catholics and Socialist revolutionaries. In Italy there was no common ground among modernist liberals and tradition-minded monarchists. In Austria there was no common ground between the National Socialists and the Hapsburg Legitimists.

Thus came Hitler, Franco, Mussolini, and Schussnigg, men of very different moral timbre, but each called in, or allowed in, to effect change from the political irresolution and infighting that signaled the end of the patient political conversation. For in each case the political conversation seemed unproductive, the citizenry grew tired, and revolution threatened. Then there will appear, almost universally in the West, the savior with proposals for unity that require stopping the conversation, forming national coalitions, and moving quickly to close down the tiresome, troublesome political debate by creating a one-party or no-party state. To a public tired of tension, tired of politics as usual, this will be presented in the rhetoric of necessary change. In fact cliques and henchmen will then replace parties. The nation will have unity, but it will also have tyranny.

It is too much to suggest that the United States stands now where Italy stood in 1922, Germany in 1932, Spain in 1935 and Austria in 1938. The cultural framework is not broken but bent. Yet what common ground can be found between those who think the life of a child can be sacrificed casually, routinely, often for mere convenience and those who believe every life belongs to God? What commonality is there between those who believe in the omnicompetent, universally planned, provider state and freedom?

In such a climate, as the conversation strains the limits of the cultural compact, office-seekers will promise change, an end to politics as usual, and unity. When they do so, they are envisioning an end to the political conversation on their own terms. The conversation may be difficult, the resolution of exacerbative issues unforeseeable, but the conversation is still better than the unity thus proposed.