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Default and the Sectarian Temptation: America’s Achilles’ Heel

How has sectarianism caused the United States to run suicidal risks — repeatedly and unnecessarily?

August 4, 2011

How has sectarianism caused the United States to run suicidal risks — repeatedly and unnecessarily?

To the sectarian mind, compromise is seen as compromising one’s integrity, and as opening the door to demonic influences. That is how it became possible for a substantial part of the U.S. Congress to think of the practical cost of default, no matter how high, as secondary compared to the moral cost of compromise with the “corrupt” other. Sectarianism, definable as a group’s claim to a unique link to truth and a wish to exclude all other influences as corrupting, undermines the national capacity for joint policymaking. A purity present at the country’s founding is imagined ex post facto — and is assumed to have been lost at the hands of dark conspiratorial forces. Its restoration is cast as an urgent patriotic task, achievable only through the expurgation of the conspiratorial forces. In its logical consequence lie never-ending demands for further expurgation of any and all “corrupting” influences — and the delirious assumption that the sectarian thinking has the only legitimate claim to the mainstream. Our vulnerability to it is a cost of a rewriting of our history, in which the Puritan Separatists, the second colony and one far from the colonial mainstream, become “our Pilgrim fathers.” The recent high-wire dance with default was not the first time America suffered from sectarianism. In fact, it is — sadly — very much a bipartisan “sport.” For decades, sectarians have weighed down the political system from both ends, joining symbiotically in a patriotic language to which the center knows no answer. New Left sectarians became the cutting edge of Democrats in the 1960s. In a flash, a New Right took revenge, doing the same thing to Republicans. Superpatriots often act as supertraitors. They betray openly, on a wholesale basis, out of a blind faith. Ordinary traitors have to do it quietly, retail-style. It was sectarians on the right, aided by opposite numbers on the left, who put at risk the good faith and credit of the American Republic. Fervent patriots, they were poised to destroy America’s global financial position from within. And they were disappointed by the compromise that brought America back from the brink of catastrophe. They voted against it. Many of them talk about international bankers as conspirators against American sovereignty, but they were ready to compromise U.S. financial sovereignty for the sake of their personal sense of purity. Their policy would have really left the rest of us Americans dependent on skeptical bankers, much like other defaulting countries such as Greece. Regarding the present-day worshipping of the Founding Fathers, let’s recall that America’s credit started out in default, due to the Revolution. Financial integrity and creditworthiness were established only by the heroic labors of Alexander Hamilton. His work has now endured for two centuries. To succeed, he faced down, at tremendous personal cost, the sectarian populists of his time and their smears of “corruption.” Today, their heirs are poised to take revenge. And, lest we forget, Jefferson, very much the hero of what goes for a political left and a political right in the United States today, was our national headmaster of political sectarianism. His entire career — the Revolution, the wish for a weaker Constitution, the struggle against Washington and Hamilton, the building of a dominant Southern-based party machine — was devoted in practice to smearing and undermining as “tyranny” any superior level of government that could act independently of the slave owners. His Declaration of Independence “evinced” in the central government a grand “design,” a vast conspiracy, to take away all our liberties and “reduce” us to slaves “under absolute Despotism,” making it our “right” — nay, our “duty” — to topple it and separate. When we teach unqualified reverence for Jefferson and the Declaration, we render our society permanently susceptible to conspiracy theory and escapism — to literal insanity. In practice, the sectarian phase of the American Revolution was ended by the Treaty of Paris. A treaty of international peace with Britain provided a unique way to conclude a domestic revolution. By requiring restoration of the civic liberties of the loyalist third of society that hadn’t wanted a break-up and civil war, the treaty put an end to the revolutionary repressions and made available the moderate votes needed for ratification of the U.S. Constitution. Without that, Americans might have been stuck with the sort of “permanent revolutionary” factional regime that came out of the revolutions in Russia, Mexico, China and Iran. But in mentality, the sectarianism endured. Indeed, it became entrenched in the national identity: The Revolution was oversimplified as “The Founding,” as if to forget our pre-1776 roots. And the colonial-era Father Figure role was shifted to the Pilgrim separatists, to clinch the inattention to the mainstream roots in positive British and European development. Time after time since then, sectarians, in the name of saving the United States of America from betrayal, have brought down disaster upon the country. The isolationists of the 1930s were classic sectarians. Fixated on preserving America’s separateness from Europe as the bedrock of our liberty, they gave Hitler his opening for another world war and a real shot at destroying all liberty. The secessionists of the Civil War were no less sectarian. Direct successors to Jefferson, they fought for liberation from any central government strong enough to disturb their traditional right to hold slaves. Sectarians tend to shoot at their own side, in the name of purifying it from the ever-corrupting influences of “the other.” It is fantasized that this will bring one’s side an unstoppable strength. America, when it suffers sectarian deflection, shoots at itself. It literally shoots itself in the foot — and in other limbs. It weakens itself. It sometimes puts its very survival at risk. Today’s cutting-edge of the Republican Party, its Tea Party cohorts, is closely following this script. It shoots at its own side for talking compromise with Obama. It smears Republicans as “RINOs” (“Republicans In Name Only”) while calling Democrats “socialists” and — horrors! — “European.” It talks recklessly about default as not such a big deal. It puts America once again at risk. However, cutting-edge Democrats are no better. We don’t understand well enough that they, too, are Constitutional fundamentalists who strictly (re)construct the U.S. Constitution to fit their factional obsessions. What are we to make, for example, of the frequent declamations of the Obamas and Patrick Leahys that “America would cease to be America” if it continued holding terrorists at Guantánamo or trying them in military tribunals? Or if the country rejected an Islamic Center near Ground Zero? Or if it bucked any of a long laundry list of demands? In the perpetual refrain that America is “betraying the Constitutional principles it was founded on,” there is an implied threat of no longer recognizing the country as the America they are loyal to. The “America” they allow is not the concrete society — one that in fact evolved over millennia rather than being “founded on a principle” and that, like all societies, must manage prudently its complex basket of interests and principles. It is reduced instead to a narrowly selected fraction of its principles. It is always being “betrayed”: the society is always balancing the selected principles with its other principles and needs, for that is the actual way to be true to itself. Intriguingly, both sets of sectarians follow after Jefferson. It was he who disastrously invented the ultimate cynical ploy — the strategy of invoking the name of the Constitution in order to confound the implementation of the very purpose of the Constitution: to build a central state “adequate to the exigencies of government,” in the words of the resolutions that authorized the Constitutional Convention. America has the oldest and the most stable written Constitution of any country in the world. Yet, in America’s political discourse it is perpetually on the verge of final ruin. This is the one home-spun factor that could truly place the Constitution at risk: the habit of believing that it is collapsing, being “betrayed,” and can be saved only by going off one or another sectarian deep end. This (self-imposed!) hankering after catastrophic politics is the one thing that could destroy the Constitution from within, just as life-threatening external contingencies — such as biological catastrophe or technological surprise sprung by an enemy — could destroy it from without. This very real effect of the constant hijacking of the Constitution for ulterior, extremist purposes — call it Constitutional millennialism — ought to give all parties reason for pause. George Washington, the country’s core founder, pointedly said government failure is the one thing that could lead us Americans to give up our freedom in despair. The original risk of government failure ended in 1865. The sectarians who had opposed the U.S. Constitution from the start were decisively routed, after they momentarily seceded from it in 1860. Thereafter, the Constitution has been virtually unshakable, and grown only more so with each passing generation. The mass domestic opposition to its existence has long since vanished. Its balances are entrenched, broad-based and solidly redundant — yet we regularly call them “fragile.” On all sides we speak with ingrained falsehood of “the Constitution in danger.” And with this, we keep spawning sectarian revival waves in both parties that keep bringing America anew to the edge of government failure. A paranoia about a threat to the Constitution rose to a fever pitch during the Vietnam war, hounding a president out of office. An entire generation — my generation — still tells itself that it was saving the Constitution this way. Otherwise it would have to face the fact of what it actually did: pull a semi-coup, and start a cycle of partisan intransigence and revenge that has weakened America’s capacity to function as a constitutional democratic political system. Structurally, America grew up when it adopted the Constitution. The society repaired itself and made itself whole. But mentally, it never fully grew up. Like angry teenagers, we remain always in half-hysteria, jeopardizing the sobriety that we have in our institutions. We cannot afford to remain half-mature for the rest of history. We are too big for that.

More on this topic


For decades, sectarians have weighed down the political system from both ends. It is very much a bipartisan "sport."

Superpatriots often act as supertraitors. They betray openly, on a wholesale basis, out of a blind faith.

To the sectarian mind, compromise is seen as compromising one's integrity, and as opening the door to demonic influences.

The isolationists of the 1930s were classic sectarians. They gave Hitler his opening via their fixation on preserving America's separateness from Europe.

Jefferson, very much the hero of what goes for a political left and a political right in the United States today, was our national headmaster of political sectarianianism.