Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Watching Our Nation Break in Two

NOTE: This is last in a series of four planned posts about how we make decisions as a society, and where our political leadership might be taking us. It is meant to be non-partisan, but my conservative-ness might slip through. In the first post,I discussed the difference between team thinking and crisis thinking, and how we seem to be demonstrating a team mentality while saying we are in a crisis. The second post considered the possibility that things aren't all that bad, but political marketing is making us feel the world is falling apart. The third post looked at whether we are waiting for a crisis we know must come, but is taking its sweet time to get here. This post will consider the possibility that our society is in fact splitting in two.

In 2004, the map you see to the left became a bit of a phenomenon. People fed up with the divisiveness of that presidential election (and particularly those bitter about being on the losing side) half-jokingly suggested breaking the country up into the blue "United States of Canada" and the red "Jesusland". This notion tapped into a deep feeling that we can no longer agree on the direction of the country, and it would be better if we divorced now and formed two ideologically coherent countries.

I haven't heard anyone advocating for the country to split lately, so it would be tempting to laugh off that map as a passing fancy. But the idea that the "other side" is not just wrong, but illegitimate, has if anything gathered steam since 2004. The Birther movement can be seen as a crude way to deny to Obama the legitimacy to even advance an argument. Equally crude, though nicely packaged, is this argument from Ron Rosenbaum that the Republican party is irredeemably and undeniably racist, and thus not a legitimate participant in our national debate. Lest you think I exaggerate:
In a way mainstream media outlets who promote a false equivalency between the two parties by failing to note at the very least the neo-racist supporters of the Republican Party are themselves complicit in the charade that the GOP is a morally legitimate entity. Not that racists don’t vote Democratic, and yes I know the GOP was, was, the party of Lincoln, but that was long ago in another country.
The distance between this statement and saying that anyone who votes for Mitt Romney is a racist is short indeed, and from there it is just a few more steps to an argument that any Republican elected, or any Republican law passed, does not have moral legitimacy.

If all of this is a little too high minded, take a look at your Facebook or Twitter feeds after the next debate. I'm pretty sure you'll see the liberals decrying Romney's desire to leave the poor and vulnerable unprotected to help out his rich cronies, and the conservatives attacking Obama's anti-American, socialist policies that are destroying the country's spirit and shredding the Constitution. 

So what? People disagree about politics, and they aren't always nice about it. At the end of the day, most of these arguments come and go, with no lasting impact on the unity of our nation. Our democracy has lasted almost 250 years by adjusting to the changing beliefs of its people: eventually we find common ground and move on.

There's one exception to this rule, and I think the example is instructive. As I wrote a year ago, in the years before the Civil War we had fewer and fewer common principles to help us reconcile our differences. Eventually, the differences of belief between the Union and the Confederacy were severe enough to provoke first succession, then war. The only way to reconcile these wildly divergent beliefs was for one side to crush the other, and force its beliefs upon the losers.

Is there a current schism anywhere near as severe as that in the time before the Civil War? I took a stab at capturing some of the differences between "Red Culture" (that associated with Jesusland) and "Blue Culture:

Obviously this is an over-simplification, but my point is that in ways big and small these cultures are wildly different, with very few areas of overlap. This does not feel like the description of two strains within one coherent society to me, but two antagonistic societies living side by side. It also feels like there is not much chance of one side convincing the other on any of these issues, as these views are based in deep beliefs and worldviews that are hard to challenge.

My sense is that Blue Culture is the more recent development of the two, one that has its roots in the trauma of the Great Depression and which fully took shape when the Baby Boomers challenged the moral consensus around religion, sexuality and gender roles that existed (somewhat uneasily) before the 1960s. That worldview has always defined itself in opposition to a more patriarchal, conservative America, which they felt left the disadvantaged to fall through the cracks. In the 1980's, conservatives began to push back, reasserting traditional values and worrying that the goals Blue Culture was advancing would sap American individuality and vitality. We now seemed to have reached something of a stalemate.

A few essays ago, I argued in essence that this stalemate was somewhat stable, that neither side would really move us that far from the common ground that we have somehow stumbled upon. But I think the sense of impending crisis, and the limits of deficit spending, will undermine this truce. Conservatives want to cut taxes to give individuals more control of their money. Liberals want to raise spending to extend social services to more people. For a long time, we could take turns from one administration to the next, but we can't paper over our differences this way anymore.

How will this end? I don't believe we have a second civil war in us. My guess is no Californian will want to take up arms to keep Georgia in the Union, or vice versa. And I also don't think we are going to suddenly resolve all of these problems, barring an external crisis that forces us to come together for survival's sake. I see two possibilities: one is that a financial crisis much bigger than the 2008 crash devastates the country, and our irreconcilable differences force a rapid and nasty divorce on us. The alternative (and the one I'm rooting for) is that we realize we're running in place and decide to stop, and we figure out a way to either split up amicably or devolve all but a few functions of the federal government to the state or regional level.

Sadly, I don't see America in its current form lasting my lifetime. That may be tragic, but it doesn't need to be. A country with a single citizenship, a single military, but two different systems of domestic governance, could be a good thing. It would ease most of the contentious debates we suffer through today, and would allow those who don't "fit in" on their side to migrate to the other territory. And it would acknowledge our shared heritage while not lying about how differently our two cultures view the world.

But since the odds of an amicable divorce seem so long, I'll end with a bit of a prayer: please, please let me be wrong.

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