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A contradiction at the heart of the American system

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It is easy to dismiss recent rhetoric from the right that the impeachment and removal of President Trump will cause a civil war, or from the left that to allow the president to remain in office will set us on the road to dictatorship. After all, our nation has survived for two and a half centuries through crisis after crisis, and has had only one Civil War, which was fought over issues as fundamentally irreconcilable as slavery and secession. Our system of checks and balances, so far, has prevented a dictator from emerging. Surely such dire circumstances cannot arise here.

Don’t bet on it. Just ask Kurt Gödel.

Kurt Gödel, you ask? What would an eccentric Austrian-born, Nobel prize-winning mathematician and logician from the 20th century have to say about an American dictator, or a new American civil war?

Plenty, if I am right (or, more precisely, if I was right 33 years ago when I wrote a paper in my final semester of law school applying Gödel’s work on logic to American constitutional thought).    

An unsolved mystery surrounds Gödel’s decision to become an American citizen. As the story goes, recounted most recently in Jim Holt’s fascinating “When Einstein Walked with Gödel,” Gödel, at the instigation of his friend and pragmatist Albert Einstein, applied to become a naturalized American citizen. Studious fellow that he was, Gödel studied American government in the weeks leading to his citizenship interview with a Superior Court judge in Trenton,N.J.  

Accompanied by Einstein and game theory co-inventor Oskar Morgenstern as witnesses (a one-act play waiting to be written), Gödel sat down with the judge, who noted that Gödel’s prior citizenship “was under an evil dictatorship … but fortunately that’s not possible in America.”  “On the contrary,” Gödel replied, “I know how that can happen,” but, as Einstein held his breath, the judge cut him off before he could explain how our system could fail. 

What he meant, I believe, can be seen by applying Gödel’s teaching about logic to the structure of debate under our Constitution. Gödel’s revolutionary idea was that no system of thought can be both internally consistent and externally complete. The price of consistency, in even the purest logical systems, is that it excludes externalities that cannot be reconciled. But here’s the paradox:  As a system aspires to completeness, it begins to include elements that are fundamentally incompatible with each other, resulting in recursive propositions such as “this sentence is false.” In systems that aspire to completeness, chaos and collapse are a perpetual possibility.  

This tension between consistency and completeness is a useful framework to apply to the context of systems of government. Think of the government of the old Soviet Union — or any authoritarian government based on an ethnicity or an exclusive ideology — as a system that aspires above all to consistency. Such systems invariably oppress because they must exclude in order to remain consistent. American government, on the other hand, aspires to completeness, to the principle that the many (e pluribus) can pursue their own rights yet become one (unum). 

The Gödelian contradiction at the heart of our system is most clearly seen in the evolution of the debate over slavery that led to the Dred Scott decision and, ultimately, to civil war. Unlike other systems of government, America was founded not on a narrow consistency represented by a narrow ideology or an ethnic identity but by a commitment to “self-evident” truths that all people are equal and endowed with inalienable rights. America was also, however, founded as a society that embraced the notion that one person can own another. Over time, something had to give.

In the years from 1776 until the early 1800s, there was widespread agreement with the Jeffersonian notion all men are created equal and that slavery is an aberrant moral evil; eventually it would be eliminated. People generally accepted the English rule in James Somerset’s case, decided in 1772, which held that slavery was contrary to natural law and thus could exist only if statutorily embodied; widespread acceptance of this principle led to the abolition of the international slave trade in 1808. 

As the years passed, however, and slavery persisted, attitudes hardened. People drifted apart and began talking principally to like-minded people, evolving different terms to describe the same realities. Civil discussion gradually became impossible.   

Proslavery proponents ultimately were driven, by their acceptance of both slavery and the ideal that all men are created equal, to deny that African Americans were people at all, an attitude that culminated in Chief Justice Taney’s opinion in Dred Scott that effectively denied the personhood of African Americans. In 80 years, the rule in Somerset’s case had been somersaulted; in the Dred Scott decision, it was now slavery that was the natural norm and its abolition that required an affirmative statutory act.         

With the nation employing two entirely separate and opposed vocabularies and embracing separate and opposed sets of facts, the use of force to preserve the Union was, in retrospect, inevitable. A Confederate victory would have pledged that new government to the narrow consistency of white supremacy; the Union victory reaffirmed our nation’s commitment to completeness. 

The issue of slavery exemplifies, in my view, what Gödel meant when he said he saw how our form of government could fail. African American slaves were a constitutional dilemma made flesh, the embodiment of the contradiction at the heart of our ideals, one person’s pursuit of happiness causing him ultimately to deny the humanity of another person. 

Thirty-three years ago, I concluded that although slavery exposed the ultimate vulnerability of our system, it was such an extreme case that the same dynamic was unlikely to recur. The slavery example should remind us that our system’s success is not self-executing; indeed, our checks and balances are set up to fail in the absence of a spirit of common enterprise and compromise. So long as we keep that vulnerability in mind, I concluded, our system would flourish.

Was I right in identifying Gödel’s contradiction? I don’t know. But I have been thinking about the subject a lot recently, and this much I do know: I was wrong about how unlikely the American dilemma was to recur.

I didn’t count on the emergence of the centrifugal forces of cable TV news and social media, or their application of principles of niche marketing to a manipulable public. These forces have combined to ensure that issue upon issue mimics the slavery debate in generating opposed vocabularies, opposed sets of facts, irreconcilable data, driving the factions further and further apart until civil discussion becomes impossible.

Irreconcilable divisions are apparent everywhere in our political landscape — in the impeachment debate, to be sure, but also in the debates over the scope of the Second Amendment, abortion rights, health care, the Kavanaugh confirmation, and so on.

The Russian election interference and other cyber intrusions were and are part of a larger cultural enterprise: to cause our open government to fail through an excess of openness, by stoking social and political divisions, thereby exacerbating them. It’s the ideological equivalent of flying hijacked planes into buildings, or hacking the internet in order to shut it down: exploiting freedom in order to destroy it. The narrow oppressive consistency of authoritarian government beckons behind these efforts as a ready recourse from chaos; it can be seen in the angry efforts of partisans on each side to shout down or silence their adversaries, and in the growth of extremist ideologies.

When Vladimir Putin gloats, therefore, that our institutions are “eating themselves,” he displays a greater understanding of our vulnerabilities than our own leaders do. The Russians and others didn’t start the fire; they are merely providing an accelerant to the conflagration begun by rabid partisans and fueled by the economics of cable news and social media.

For a generation now, the losing party in the presidential race has not accepted the legitimacy of the president. People across the nation avoid discussing politics during family occasions, or simply stop associating with those with opposing political views. Echoes of the period before the Civil War are everywhere. 

Can’t happen here? On second thought, don’t ask Kurt Gödel; he is long gone and his answer remains a mystery. 

Ask yourselves.   

John Farmer Jr. is director of the Eagleton Institute of Politics at Rutgers University. He is a former assistant U.S. attorney, counsel to the governor of New Jersey, New Jersey attorney general, senior counsel to the 9/11 Commission, dean of Rutgers Law School, and executive vice president and general counsel of Rutgers University.

Tags American Civil War Donald Trump Kurt Gödel partisan politics Philosophy Slavery in the United States Vladimir Putin

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