Palmer writes, “In the face of divergent problems…what kinds of institutions will allow people who disagree to open up and work together rather than shut down and turn against each other? When America’s founders wrestled with that question, they were motivated in part by a desire to grow beyond Old World traditions of ‘resolving’ conflicts by royal decree. But their more immediate motivation was the need to deal with the serious conflicts among themselves… Their own diversity of convictions compelled them to invent political institutions capable of surviving conflict and of putting it to good use…
“What they created is a form of government that maintains tension over time rather than rushing to resolve it prematurely and falsely, thus provoking a supply of human creativity that is never achieved when problems are resolved by fiat.
“In the insightful and incisive words of the historian Joseph Ellis, the governing institutions bequeathed us were ‘not about providing answers’ but about ‘providing a framework in which the salient questions could continue to be debated.’ Our form of government was designed not to suppress our differences but to keep the energy of their tension alive so that it could animate the body politic…
“With provisions of this sort, the founders hoped to avoid the wreckage that litters human history, the wreckage caused by ‘resolving’ conflict with violence. Forced resolutions are false resolutions: repression merely drives dissent underground, where sooner or later it explodes, leaving new violence in its wake. In American-style democracy, the incessant conflicts of political life are meant to be contained within a dialectic of give-and-take, generating and even necessitating collaboration and inventiveness. These principles create a political system that can and does try our souls. It frustrates, maddens, exhausts, and appalls us when big problems go unsolved because we cannot muster enough agreement to solve them or when problems we thought we had put to rest are called back into play.
“And yet this is one of the most crucial lessons of the twentieth [and twenty first] century, one that we forget at our peril: tension is a sign of life, and the end of tension is a sign of death.” (pages 74-76)
In the midst of tense and divisive times in our nation, Palmer’s words give me hope. Tension is actually a part of our democratic process which Winston Churchill described as “the worst form of government, except for all the others.”
—Tom Tripp is the Pastor at the First Presbyterian Church of Colusa. Pastor Tripp can be reached by e-mail at email@example.com.