Both the constructive disagreement intrinsic to science and the adversarial scrutiny necessary to politics disappear in this invocation of science as the ultimate authority – this trick will become familiar in the coming months. An extraordinary emergency requires extraordinary powers; no one disagrees with that. But it is politics, not science, which grants these powers legitimacy. How long will they endure?
These conditions can easily be set out in very abstract terms. Government must respect human rights, it must respect religious freedom and other forms of freedom of conscience, it must distribute its wealth so as to give everyone a fair stake in its economy and, above all, it must conduct its elections and other political procedures argumentatively so that each citizen is treated as someone worth convincing not just outvoting.
The United States fails by all these standards, and Britain does not do much better. We fail most dramatically in the character of our politics. Our politicians treat us as ignorant consumers; they entertain us with slogans and sound bites rather than arguments. In America, a very pessimistic explanation of this degraded politics is now fashionable. Americans are supposedly divided into two radically opposed cultures: the red culture that wants its religion public, drinks beer, lives in the middle, and votes Republican, and the blue culture that keeps its religion (if any) private, drinks white wine, lives on the coasts and votes Democratic. Genuine argument requires some common ground from which argument can start, and the conventional wisdom now holds that these two cultures are so fundamentally divided, in every respect, that there is no common ground. Politics is doomed to be war by other means.