The January 6th House Select Committee hearings, which took place last Wednesday, were troubling, to put it mildly. Both the testimony of the witnesses from D.C. and Capitol police and the new video footage made it very clear that the Capitol rioters wished to stage a hard coup against the pro forma process of certifying Joe Biden’s election to the presidency. But I also found it troubling that all parties were adamantly insisting that the Committee was non-partisan.
I understand why. The Democrats were eager to define the Committee as an effort to uncover the truth about the events of that day rather than an opportunity to trash the Republicans. The presence of two Republicans on the Committee was designed to show the Democrats were operating in good faith. The motives of House Speaker Pelosi are commendable. But still, under the circumstances, I am not sure this is adequate.
I do not wish to sound like a broken record on this theme, but it bears repeating. Since Newt Gingrich’s 1994 “Contract With America,” U.S. politics has been transformed from a Madisonian procedural republic to a gladiatorial arena where friends square off against enemies. This is the vision endorsed in the political theology of Carl Schmitt. That this transformation has happened is nothing short of catastrophic. But it is also a fact. Democrats and Republicans concerned with the norms and institutions of liberal republican democracy need to face that fact and adjust their strategies and tactics accordingly.
The first strategic move those Democrats and “Pelosi Republicans” need to do is recognize that the battlefield has shifted from everyday horse-trading to political theology, politics as a form of god-talk, and an agon of friends and enemies where the latter takes no quarter. In a sense, we are all Schmittians now, whether we like it or not. (It is still morally crucial not to like it. But this is where we are.)
I am uncomfortable with any idea of “political theology”, in part because I am committed to the kind of democratic pluralism best expressed by John Dewey and, in a very different key, Hannah Arendt. Both construed politics as a form of persuasion on human matters rather than a battle between the ultimate, non-negotiable dogmas of theology or metaphysics. But I am also chary of political theology because I am a Christian…