Treating the Culture Wars

By Chris Paludi

Our country is perhaps mortally divided. There is an active movement of “resistance” to our President, who himself is a destabilizing embarrassment. While both are symptoms of our ailing democracy, resistance should be seen not as a mere response to President Trump.

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By Chris Paludi

Our country is perhaps mortally divided. There is an active movement of “resistance” to our President, who himself is a destabilizing embarrassment. While both are symptoms of our ailing democracy, resistance should be seen not as a mere response to President Trump. It is the rational and inevitable progression in today’s “culture wars,” whose fallout isolates divergent national subcultures into two distinct peoples within one country.

For simplicity we tend to split Americans by coast and heartland, left and right, Democrat and Republican. Though all Americans, they disagree fundamentally in their disjoint visions of their just society. With these divisive questions increasingly decided for all by the Supreme Court, and thus by appointment power the President, identity and ideology transform party rivalry into fundamental conflict over mutually exclusive ideas of morality. When one party’s justice is the other’s injustice, the party in power is then seen by the other as immoral.

There cannot be loyal opposition to or compromise with immorality—the only just response begins with fundamental resistance and moves toward disunion. Now that the precedent has been set, resistance to the opposing party will become the new normal. This is the beginning of a perilous road for our democracy, but we could hold together nationally as Americans by returning to the federal principles of our Constitution.

The sheer size of our nation necessarily means that it will contain distinct and even opposite geographic subcultures. For the sake of their coexistence the Founders wrote, as explains James Madison in Federalist No. 39, “neither a national nor a federal Constitution, but a composition of both.” Ours is not a pure democracy whose national society can be directed by popular vote; America is a republic of culturally distinct states, each politically empowered to direct itself by what Alexander Hamilton in Federalist No. 33 describes as “the residuary authorities of the smaller societies.” By imbuing them with some autonomy the Founders intended to avoid national conflict and have even opposite subcultures coexist.

Indeed, the original principle in the Declaration of Independence was for states to be “free and independent.” Though this rings of the states’ political quasi-autonomy left behind with the Articles of Confederation, the Constitution preserved the principle of local determination. The Founders thereby guaranteed that while America would be a nation of Americans, it could also be a republic of Californians and Ohioans, Utahans and Hawaiians. While we will therefore often disagree readily, our country was expressly designed to contain relatively divergent political communities.

The Constitution thus preempts subcultural conflicts enabling localities to make changes within states, the “laboratories of democracy,” that their fellow citizens in other states might find attractive and adopt for themselves. This federal idea, that the truth will win out on its own, has been abandoned in favor of national competition.

Mobilizing electorally to determine moral direction in national policy is tempting, but is in fact self-defeating. Currently necessity forces each side to attempt every four years to impose its vision of the just society on the other, or else cede being imposed on. The mutual exclusivity of the culture wars transforms a norm that could have been gradually popularly accepted into an imposition of unjust policy. It is then culturally rejected as unjust, and the resistance to injustice mobilizes for the next election.

Our national cultural divergence means that only these locales through their communal norms are capable of coming to a consensus on these questions. Understanding this the Founders provided the policy space for communities to develop according to their local character. Though we originally adhered to these more federal principles, we need simply look to the polarizing effects of our national moral conflicts today to see what they hoped to avoid.

James Madison as one of our chief architects balanced not only the states against the national government, but also instituted balance between its three branches. However, the balance has shifted from the more stable and deliberative Congress to a proactive Presidency. Leaving for a later date the question of third branch activism, we may see easily that though the Executive was Constitutionally weak, presidents throughout American history have by varying degrees increased the powers of the office; and though Congress as the most representative institution and the most constitutionally empowered should therefore be the focus of government, today it merely responds to the Executive’s initiative.

For Madisonian government to work, “ambition must be made to counteract ambition” between these branches. Luckily this may be the opportune moment for Congress to challenge the presidency and reassert its eminence. This president is the weakest in over a century. Rather than kowtow to tweets from their party leader, or appeal to the same populism that defeated their 2016 candidate, individual Congressmen should recognize their ability to bring this president down to their level and thus raise their own and their branch’s stature.

This is not the only silver lining of such a distasteful and unpopular president as ours. Though our current political moment is a dark one for American democracy, President Trump may have returned the vast majority of the American public to a mindset closer to that of the Founders: a deep distrust of an overly significant, too-powerful presidency. We are ready to return the system to function as it was intended.

Thus President Trump and the resistance movement clarify the Constitutional treatment: From our increasingly divisive national democracy, we must return to America’s original diverse republic of states. Congress should demote the President, and the “smaller societies” must be empowered to deliberate and locally determine their own directions.

Yet with the fracturing over the last century of certain national cultural norms, an American political community will be difficult to recover. The best that can be done is the Constitution’s coexistence of subcultures; but a ceasefire in the culture wars would not resolve today’s moral divides.

 

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