We are a deeply divided nation. On the political spectrum, polarization has become the norm rather than the exception. Gone are the days when the average voter might prefer one candidate for President over the other, but still regard the other as a decent person capable of leading the executive branch. We are now witnessing a time of national mourning among the cultural elites in the wake of their candidate’s opponent winning a democratic election. What has happened, and what can be done about it?
As a nation, we have lost our center. Democrats and Republicans (and those associated with each) no longer hold common ideals rooted in a shared worldview. Progressives envision a future in which traditional norms have been tossed aside in the pursuit of their vision of justice. Conservatives hope to defend and reclaim those norms, appalled as they are by the prospect of what could replace them. In every dimension of political life, these divisions manifest themselves. The center is gone, and we have become, for all practical purposes, two distinct nations forced to live together under one Constitution.
The way I see it, there are three possible ways forward:
What if some states decided they would be better off on their own, or perhaps joined only to other like-minded states, rather than continuing to force the current arrangement to work? I remain of the opinion that they have a right to do so, in spite of President Lincoln’s protests to the contrary. With no cultural center, will we ever come to the conclusion that unity simply isn’t possible anymore?
However, there are numerous legal and practical complications to this option, more (I’m sure) than I could even possibly conceive. But to take just one example, what would happen to federal government entitlements (Social Security, Medicare, etc.) with regard to residents of states that chose to secede from the federal government? I would imagine the task of seceding would be much more tangled today than it was in 1860-1861.
So I would say secession is a very unlikely option. But the second option is much more likely:
(2) Dominance of one side over the other
The more polarized we are as a country, the more our engagement with one another takes on the form of a culture war. Wars often end with one side winning and the other side losing. Over time, one side in the war will emerge, perhaps ever so gradually, as the winner, while the losing side negotiates, little by little, the terms of surrender. The end result will be a dominant majority imposing its will on an oppressed minority. If I had to predict right now what this looks like for us in a generation or two, I still give leftists the odds of winning. The Trump phenomenon is a temporary disruption. The left’s complete ownership of the primary culture-shaping institutions makes me think that right-wing populism is not a movement that will endure. Unless there is some major structural change in the way our political system works, I predict that traditionalists will end up a persecuted minority in the America of the future. We will be one nation, but at what cost?
But can we remain one nation without succumbing to this? Yes, we can, which brings us to the third option:
(3) Federalism and true diversity
Imagine an America in which the basic governing unit is at the state level. States have significant freedom and authority to decide their own policies for education, healthcare, entitlements, environmental protection, marriage, business regulation, etc. Yes, in our current situation, states have different policies on these and other issues. But imagine the states doing so with minimal involvement from the federal government. What if the United States of America became, once again, a giant laboratory in which states had freedom to test different policies according to the will of their own citizens? What if, instead of threatening to move to Canada every four years if X wins the presidential election, we could make a more reasonable threat of relocating to another state that more closely fits our ideals if X wins the race for governor?
Imagine a federal government that has a very limited focus on a few necessary tasks: national defense, monetary policy, regulation of interstate commerce, foreign policy, and maybe a handful of other things. Executive orders do not exist. Federal courts act only within the bounds of Constitutional authority. In this world, the President of the United States will likely have less bearing on your everyday life than the governor and legislature of your state. If your candidate doesn’t win a presidential election, there would be no reason to think your world had come apart at the seams, no need to organize protests, no need for weeping and gnashing of teeth. After all, it’s just the federal government, that entity that manages the political union of fifty sovereign states, that enforces Constitutional protections for the citizens of those states, and that otherwise stays out of the way.
An America like this one, which would be less of a “nation” and more of a “union” of states (as it was known prior to the Civil War) is the only kind of America I can envision in which true diversity can exist. In this kind of America, those who prefer a progressive vision for their lives in relation to the state can move to California or Oregon, and those who prefer a traditionalist vision can move to Texas or Kentucky. Neither side would feel the need to compel the other to conform to its wishes. States would be limited only by the Constitutional protections guaranteed to their citizens (i.e., those matters that have specifically been taken out of the democratic process). Other than those protections, states would be free to do whatever they wanted and, in a sense, compete with one another for citizens and businesses (more so than they do now).
What I have outlined here is essentially a vision of what America was designed to be at its founding. I am calling for a return to the federalist principles of our Constitution, which we have long since abandoned. I am, in other words, advocating what is essentially a conservative vision for the way forward. In order to embrace it, progressives would have to relinquish a few things. They would have to give up their attraction to centralized authority and lay down their preferred weapons of regulatory federal agencies, executive orders, and tyrannical courts. They would have to embrace actual tolerance of diversity, rather than simply using the terms “tolerance” and “diversity” as code words that mean “utter conformity to the progressive agenda.” They would have to let go of the dream of an America with uniform environmental standards to combat climate change.
But what could they get in return? They could have the opportunity to pursue a progressive vision of life with relatively little opposition in as many states as they could persuade to do so. They could have the chance to build a progressive society and let the world weigh it against a more conservative vision practiced in other states, and if they are truly confident that their way is better, that is simply a chance to demonstrate it to be such without browbeating dissenters into submission. They could have the freedom to watch presidential elections come and go without fretting about the sky falling when a Republican wins. They could impose as many environmental regulations as they wanted in their own states in an effort to save the planet, and in doing so lead other states by example rather than imposing their will by executive fiat from a centralized agency.
Without a cultural center, the only way to hold America together without one side dominating and oppressing the other is to return to a federalist system in which true diversity is possible. Let’s preserve our union by working together to shrink our federal government.