Civil War by Other Means

Or: Somewhere, Carl Schmitt is Smiling

In a piece I wrote for Public Seminar in September 2015, I argued that Donald Trump’s campaign augured a turn to the kind of “Friends/Enemies” political imaginary cooked up by the Nazi jurist Carl Schmitt. Schmitt was unimpressed by the niceties of liberal democratic practice, and saw politics as a Kampf between irreconcilable parties, where only the one that musters the strength to “decide upon the exception” will prevail. Three years ago I thought that, while “actually existing” American politics was veering toward Schmitt’s paradigm, there was still time to rescue a politics guided by a shared democratic culture, a la John Dewey, or a public commitment to shared debate, a la Hannah Arendt.

Unfortunately, that ship has sailed.

I make no claim to prescience here. Being a Cassandra is nothing that I’d aspire to, and many others noticed similar rumblings at the time. But I think that with the release of the Mueller Report, the jaw-dropping mendacity on display at the Barr hearings in the Senate, and the equally jaw-dropping hubris exhibited by Barr’s Department of Justice and the Trump administration overall, that politics in the United States has crossed a threshold from which there is no possible return to the status quo ante. The possibility of meaningful disagreement with those who support the now not-so-crypto-authoritarianism of Trump’s executive branch is no more, if it ever existed in the first place. Whether we like it or not, we are all Schmittians now.


In a Schmittian political world, the rational resolution of political disagreement is impossible; better: it is incoherent. Politics is simply a matter of who effectively exercises their will to inaugurate the “exception” and in so doing secures a new political order.

To understand the argument Schmitt is advancing, it is necessary to get an angle on the conditions for meaningful rational discourse and disagreement in politics – conditions Schmitt effectively dismisses as a delusion. I think Schmitt was banefully wrong in thinking that no such conditions exist per se. But if these conditions do not obtain as a matter of fact, then Schmitt, while being prescriptively wrong about politics, might count as descriptively right about a particular political arrangement. This I think, applies to us now.

In in his important book After Virtue, the philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre tried to spell out the nature of some of those conditions. MacIntyre argued that the characteristic interminability of contemporary political debate, in the U.S. and elsewhere, is due in large measure to a lack of agreed-upon premises concerning justice. He maintained that any such premises must rely upon the notion of “desert”, of which modern socio-political orders also have no intelligible, generally agreed-upon conception. “Desert”, as a necessary element of any sound conception of justice, in turn presupposes an idea of the good in which all citizens have a share that is their due, and which is embodied in the practices and traditions of a given political community. The inability for one to participate in this good, or to receive one’s designated share, constitutes injustice.

Since, in contemporary political debate, we cannot agree on what the good is, MacIntyre argues that we simply talk past one another. We cannot agree on what one deserves, thus we cannot make sense of “justice”, and thus we cannot supply compelling reasons to agree. The result is that political argument becomes more a matter of yelling than reasoning, more mutual-abuse than the connection of premise to conclusion. MacIntyre concluded that, since modern politics of any kind – liberal or conservative, radical or socialist – lack a requisite shared sense of the good life that the very idea of justice becomes a smokescreen for advancing the arbitrary goals and ambitions either of individuals or groups. Inverting Clausewitz’s quip, MacIntyre claimed that “modern Politics is civil war carried on by other means.”

I think it’s fair to say that MacIntyre, the ex-Marxist and current Thomist, wildly overstates his case. I cannot subscribe to his blanket dismissal of all modern politics, in particular his rejection of liberal democracy as irredeemably corrupt and corrupting. Nor, as Jeffrey Stout has persuasively argued, do I agree that modern liberal democratic republics lack any resources for a politics of the common good. But MacIntyre’s excursus on justice in After Virtue does shed light on at least one facet of our current political predicament here and now in Trump’s America.

Without a shared, explicit commitment to certain practices, principles, and common convictions, both on the level of Constitutional rules and implicit norms, it becomes impossible to have any kind of meaningful rational disagreement. Argument turns away from reasoning from premises to conclusions that can be shared or contested and inevitably morphs into violence, whether verbal or otherwise. Rational inference becomes unintelligible, since truth is a function of a battle of wills rather than an entailment from accepted premises. At this point, it’s pointless to deny the fact that politics has become Schmittian – an eternal agon between “friends” and “enemies” – and it is foolish to pretend that the status quo is anything other than “civil war conducted by other means.”


There are two take-aways from this.

First: the present impossibility of the rational resolution to political disputes does not just arbitrarily happen; it happens when all fealty to shared ideas, ideals, standards, and norms has been eroded. The mess we are currently in can be understood as the endpoint of a long process of corruption, perhaps rooted in defects that go back to the beginning of the republic. Trump may signify a break with “normality”, as Rep. Elijah Cummings eloquently put it, but it was defects in that “normality” – in the American way of government and the American way of life – that give rise to Trump in the first place. And thus it is these that need to be both questioned and radically reformed. I think this is the case, and I have argued such in past contributions to this journal, but I will not emphasize them here.

The second take-away, which I think is far more urgent, is this: if the possibility of rational political disagreement has disintegrated – if we inhabit a Schmittian political universe – then “normal” political action is not merely ineffective, it is positively dangerous. It lulls us into thinking that all political actors inhabit a shared paradigm (to use Thomas Kuhn’s over-used and often-abused term) where parameters are set and secure for “normal” discourse. But today, in fact, the paradigms are incommensurable: one party is convinced that the next set of rational arguments can open up avenues of persuasion and that efforts at compromise might yet be reciprocated. The other party is out to win at all costs, to pry the narrative away from all rootedness in rational persuasion and a shared commitment to objectivity and truth. The latter party is all-in for Schmitt’s Hobbesianism-on-steroids and brooks no internal dissent. I think we all know which party is which.

What to do? While it’s hard to say anything programmatic, I think it’s clear what not to do, and that’s pretty much what the Democratic leadership are doing now. A case in point: the efforts of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer to craft a bipartisan approach to the infrastructure crisis, via a meeting with the President on April 30. They emerged from that meeting with an “agreement” for a $2 trillion commitment – an agreement, it soon became apparent, that had virtually no prospect of being embraced by the Republican controlled Senate.

Under normal politics Pelosi’s and Schumer’s move makes sense as a kind of public relations coup. It could have showed that the Democrats were willing to work with Republicans to advance the common good. If Republicans were to balk, they would appear to be the obstructionists, not the Democrats. But under the Schmittian paradigm, this move is unintelligible. For Trump and the Republican Party which he has co-opted, obstructionism is not a consequence of policy, it is itself a policy. The only intelligible negotiations in a war between “friends” and “enemies” are to sue for peace or negotiate a surrender. Pelosi and Schumer thus wasted their energies and wasted the republic’s increasingly scarce time.

I am not arguing that Democrats should forego persuading erstwhile Trump supporters to switch allegiances in the 2020 election. It is manifestly clear that Trump’s “populism” is yoked to the sort of plutocratic capitalism emblematic of the Republican Party since 1980. His random imposition of tariffs on Chinese goods hurts the farmers whose support he successfully courted in 2016, and his protection of the U.S. steel industry runs contrary to the economic interests of those whose livelihood depends on steel. (Tariffs are, basically, taxes – regressive taxes borne by those who consume the goods being “protected”.) More crucially, Trump’s relentless attacks on the ACA threaten to deny healthcare to vulnerable Americans, many of whom voted Trump into office.

I am all for speaking truth to all those who have ears to hear; who can be convinced that the emperor has no clothes. But the Democratic Party can ill afford to be overoptimistic about the prospects of such a tactic. Waiting for scales to fall from the eyes of the citizenry, causing a rout in 2020, is naïve at best, since it assumes that politics is all about reasonability, persuasion, and common citizenship. This is to assume a political imaginary closer to that described by Dewey, or Arendt, or both. But it is nowhere near the Schmittian political imaginary that has colonized the present-day United States. A mere thirty-minute viewing of “Fox and Friends” should disabuse anyone of the fantasy that rational discourse and political isonomy is going to win the day.

Whether all this signals the necessity of impeachment is, I think, an open question – although I am strongly inclined to think it does. It is something that, thankfully, is being seriously and persuasively raised by Elizabeth Warren, among others. At the very least, Congress needs to press on with all attempts at holding the Trump administration accountable for their by now overt attacks on liberal constitutional democracy. (The House Judiciary Committee’s holding Attorney General William Barr in contempt is, I think, a good and frankly overdue start.) Whether Impeachment or “running out the clock” in advance of the 2020 election are the best options, or the only options, is a matter for political judgment that only Democrats in the government can make.

But it is critical to understand the context for all such judgments. Banefully, but whether we like it or not, politics in the USA has moved from something which honors reasoned deliberation about the common good to a relentless contest between “friends” and “enemies.”

Better civil war by other means than civil war by standard means, and it’s important to keep it that way. But to see the American situation as a mere variant of “normal” is to indulge a hazardous fantasy.

Michael Quirk is a philosopher who specializes in the intersection between Analytic and Continental thought. He works as an Educational Software Analyst.

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