The current presidential campaign, then, is intensely polarized precisely because these two very different visions of human life and government are clashing: on the one hand, the believers in a techno-political elite who see the federal government and its coercive power as the source of social and economic order, justice, and flourishing; on the other, the believers in traditional Madisonian politics who see free, autonomous individuals and the “little platoons” of civil society as the foundations of both our political and economic order, and who view the power of the government with suspicion. For, like Madison in Federalist No. 48, they understand that “power is of an encroaching nature” given what George Washington in his 1796 Farewell Address called the “love of power, and proneness to abuse it, which predominates in the human heart.”
These clashing visions of the role of government reflect profound beliefs and principles that speak to people’s core views of human life, human identity, and the goods we should pursue. They are not technical problems that committees of experts can solve if only corrupt, hyper-partisan politicians would set aside their selfish interests and meet together in an Olympian spirit of disinterested cooperation. Polarization is not a political dysfunction, but rather the sign that free Americans take their fundamental political ideals seriously.