OPINION

Championing American values may not be enough. Mike Pompeo warning shows deep divide in cultural factions today.

By Russell Arben Fox
Special to Gannett Kansas

When Mike Pompeo launched his “Championing American Values” political action committee recently, with the dark warning that America today faces “the dividing line between freedom and oppression,” the heavy language rubbed some people the wrong way.

Understanding why that is may tell us a little about broader fears held by some in America today.

Of course, a certain kind of fear is actually part of Pompeo’s argument. If “the encroachment of socialism” and “the woke cancel culture” really are dire threats to “our liberty and freedoms,” as Pompeo’s announcement suggests, then every America should rightfully fear whether our constitutional democracy will survive.

But at the same time, Pompeo’s appeal does exactly what, according to one understanding of our constitution, we are democratically expected to do. On this reading, our entire system is premised upon the idea that we Americans, with all our disagreements over various values, will form discrete factions, and through those factions attempt to influence the government one way or another.

Given the diversity of America, however, none of these factions will ever achieve majority support on their own. Thus they’re forced to compromise, to work together. None of the relevant groups ever get all that they want, but all get enough to keep on going.

As I said, that’s one understanding — an understanding that looks at Pompeo’s new PAC, and salutes him for taking the exact same electoral actions (raising money, campaigning for candidates, informing voters, etc.) which every other political action committee, working on behalf of every other possible set of values, also does.

We may be deeply divided in our policy preferences when it comes to what we want our government to do, but how can we worry too much about the influence of one division or another when we’re all going about our political business in the same way anyway?

Some worry, I suspect, because we recognize that the bumpy but supposedly consistent “going” mentioned above actually doesn’t always work the way some constitutional thinkers believed it would. What happens when factions, thanks to government dysfunction and cultural divides, become sources of permanent frustration and anger?

The traditional story of American pluralism provides no solution. The Civil War, which there was no compromising out of, is proof of that.

Vague talk about how we may be facing “another civil war” is pretty common, on both the left and right. Partly, that’s to be expected — the whole system assumes people will be passionate believers, and will fight hard for their factional causes.

But technology and money have long since broken down the electoral structures and responsible practices by which those factions were once defined. As a result, it’s become easy for passionate believers to believe they face uncompromising extremists, not fellow citizens that they’ll have to deal with eventually.

This is a somewhat dark diagnosis, and there is plenty of reason to think things aren’t all that bad.

Still, if you’re one of those who look at political actors like Pompeo and — even if you agree with the values he expresses — wonder a little about just what the endgame of his language is, then you’re like those of us who are beginning to fear that our constitutional machinery for dealing with disagreement may not be able to handle the internet-empowered, shame-resistant, mutual-destruction, cultural factions of today.

Does that mean that some entirely new electoral and political machinery is necessary? I suspect so — but unfortunately, getting any compromise on what that machinery should be remains far away as well.

Russell Arben Fox teaches politics in Wichita.