Government and International Relations Honors Papers

Document Type

Honors Paper


W. John Coates

Publication Date



This honors paper was accepted pending revisions. The revised version will be posted when it is available.


At the most elementary level, this honors study is concerned with political tension and its ability to procure political health. The study begins with a discussion in political theory, examining the contemporary theory of agonism, which accepts conflict as an inevitable fact of pluralist political society and defends it as necessary for the maintenance of democracy. The study identifies agonism’s origins in the ancient Greek agon, but also emphasizes that the first formal exposition of agonal political ideas comes in Machiavelli’s Discourses on Livy. It continues to work in the realm of theory, charting moments of appreciation of agonal ideas, as well as a few moments of opposition to these ideas, in modern Western political thought. In doing this, it highlights the point that agonism and its main tenets, are not just contemporary, radical, political ideas, but are housed in, and relevant to, mainstream political thought. From here, the study moves into a more practical analysis of how agonism applies to government and politics in the United States of America. Ultimately, it asserts that an accommodation and appreciation of political conflict or tension is deeply embedded in the American polity, and that, as such, the American experiment in democracy is, more specifically, an experiment in agonistic democracy. The study concludes with a conversation on the current state of tension in the United States in the context of the polarized political climate. It suggests that, as a result of polarization, tension in the U.S. is shifting from being agonistic in nature, thereby securing vitality and longevity, to being antagonistic, which Machiavelli and Mouffe warn, will lead a republic to decay. Finally, it addresses why such a shift may be occurring, and what steps might be taken to begin to reverse it.



The views expressed in this paper are solely those of the author.