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The Politics of Contempt

ddn-welThe views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Richard Clay Wilson, Jr.
June 27, 2017

We take for granted that politics is characterized by partisanship. It may even be that extreme partisanship is more the norm than the exception.

Strictly speaking, partisanship is the expression of support for a cause, faction or purpose. But, in our everyday usage of the term, we accept vigorous partisanship for given politicians and propositions implies equally vigorous opposition to other politicians and propositions.

But what if the fundamental nature of political opposition is different in kind from the nature of political support? What if political opposition isn’t the other side of a coin of political support, if you will, but something of greater weight and force?

The role of negative campaigning for political office is a strong indicator that opposition may be more powerful than support. It is commonplace for candidates to devote more time and energy to the denigration of opponents than to cultivation of support for themselves. Moreover, negative campaigning is done because it works. Perhaps something important is at work here.7

Consider the quality of contempt, and how it plays out in human affairs. In the legal environment, contempt is “open disrespect or willful disobedience of the authority of a court of law or legislative body.” In other contexts, contempt is “disparaging or haughty disdain.” In short, we can respectfully disagree but we cannot respectfully hold in contempt.

Consider the role of contempt in personal relationships. In marriage counseling, manifestations of contempt bode particularly ill. Marriages can and do survive, and even flourish, with no end of disagreements and differing values. But when contempt for, in contrast to disagreement with, a spouse’s views or values is added to the equation, a marriage’s future prospects worsen considerably. Contempt in a marriage often serves as the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back.

When contempt permeates the political arena, it arguably becomes as difficult to work things out there as it is in a marriage permeated with contempt. If this is so, the acrimony which characterizes the political arena in the presence of pervasive contempt would be far greater than the sum of political differences: it would include the sum of the participants’ contempt as well.

The contempt with which our politicians regard each other both reflects and represents the contempt with which different sets of Americans regard each other. The reason so many politicians decline to work things out with other politicians is that their constituents wouldn’t return them to office if they did. It is not politicians’ fault voters do not want them to work constructively with their political adversary counterparts.

Imagine, as a thought experiment, that it would be possible for the voters of our country to promise re-election for life to every member of Congress, conditioned on Congress approving, in one month’s time by a three-to-one margin, long-term, viable, political agreements on taxes and spending, health care, immigration and the environment — Would such political agreements be reached? The answer is in the affirmative, they would be. Moreover, necessary modifications of these agreements over the years to ensure continuing viability would also be reached, so long as the re-election for life guarantee held.

Our thought experiment reveals the underlying problem with politics in our country is not that the issues we face are insurmountably difficult. They aren’t. There are billions of people in other countries who would give almost anything to have our problems. Our political problem is, issue after issue and constituency after constituency, participants in the political process do not wish to work things out with other participants who have different views and values.

Accordingly, voters reliably cast their votes for candidates who promise not to work things out with other politicians who hold different views and values. Elected officials are only following the voters’ directions when they decline to work things out with each other.

It is wrong to say that political gridlock constitutes a flaw in democracy, because it is an accurate reflection of the electorate. It reflects the recent past, in terms of the elections that put currently serving politicians in office, and the future too, in terms of the expectations politicians hold about their prospects in the next election.

I have long been a Civil War buff. Reading today’s news and listening to today’s politicians feels reminiscent of the 1850s. The animus between left and right today seems little different from the animus between North and South then.

But we are not going to have a civil war. Instead we will have continued gridlock, with the exception of those occasions when one party gains the momentary muscle to force its way. It would be far, far better for people and politicians to work things out with each other. But politicians aren’t going to do any such thing until the voters not only say they want them to, but prove it, repeatedly, at election time.


Author: Richard Clay Wilson, Jr. is a retired city manager with 38 years of local government experience. He is the author of numerous columns and of the book Rethinking Public Administration: The Case for Management, published by Melvin & Leigh. 

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The American Society for Public Administration is the largest and most prominent professional association for public administration. It is dedicated to advancing the art, science, teaching and practice of public and non-profit administration.

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