I fear that we are coming apart as a nation. We need to face the fact that we do not agree on a large number of divisive, passion-inspiring issues. Among these are abortion, gun rights, capital punishment, affirmative action, legal and illegal immigration, same-sex 'marriage,' taxation, the need for fiscal responsibility in government, the legitimacy of public-sector unions, wealth redistribution, the role of the federal government in education, the very purpose of government, the limits, if any, on governmental power, and numerous others.
We need also to face the fact that we will never agree on them. These are not merely academic issues since they directly affect the lives and livelihoods and liberties of people. And they are not easily resolved because they are deeply rooted in fundamental worldview differences, in a "conflict of visions," to borrow a phrase from Thomas Sowell. When you violate a man's liberty, or mock his moral sense, or threaten to destroy his way of life, or use the power to the state to force him to violate his conscience, you are spoiling for a fight and you will get it.
We ought also to realize that calls for civility and comity and social cohesion are pretty much empty. Comity (social harmony) in whose terms? On what common ground? Peace is always possible if one side just gives in. If conservatives all converted to leftism, or vice versa, then harmony would reign. But to think such a thing will happen is just silly, as silly as the silly hope that Obama, a leftist, could 'bring us together.' We can come together only on common ground, or to invert the metaphor, only under the umbrella of shared principles. And what would these be?
There is no point in papering over very real differences.
Not only are we disagreeing about issues concerning which there can be reasonable disagreement, we are also disagreeing about things that it is unreasonable to disagree about, for example, whether photo ID ought to be required at polling places, and about what really happened in the Michael Brown and Trayvon Martin cases. When disagreement spreads to ascertainable facts, then things are well-nigh hopeless.
The rifts are deep and nasty. Polarization and demonization of the opponent are the order of the day. Do you want more of this? Then give government more say in your life. The bigger the government, the more to fight over. Do you want less? Then support limited government and federalism. A return to federalism may be a way to ease the tensions, some of them anyway, not that I am sanguine about any solution.
What is Federalism?
Federalism, roughly, is (i) a form of political organization in which governmental power is divided among a central government and various constituent governing entities such as states, counties, and cities; (ii) subject to the proviso that both the central and the constituent governments retain their separate identities and assigned duties. A government that is not a federation would allow for the central government to create and reorganize constituent governments at will and meddle in their affairs. Federalism is implied by the Tenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution: "The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited to it by the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people."
Federalism would make for less contention, because people who support high taxes and liberal schemes could head for states like Massachusetts or California, while the conservatively inclined who support gun rights and capital punishment could gravitate toward states like Texas.
We see the world differently. Worldview differences in turn reflect differences in values. Now values are not like tastes. Tastes cannot be reasonably discussed and disputed while values can. (De gustibus non est disputandum.) But value differences, though they can be fruitfully discussed, cannot be objectively resolved because any attempted resolution will end up relying on higher-order value judgments. There is no exit from the axiological circle. We can articulate and defend our values and clarify our value differences. What we cannot do is resolve our value differences to the satisfaction of all sincere, intelligent, and informed discussants.
Consider religion. Is it a value or not? Conservatives, even those who are atheistic and irreligious, tend to view religion as a value, as conducive to human flourishing. Liberals and leftists tend to view it as a disvalue, as something that impedes human flourishing. The question is not whether religion, or rather some particular religion, is true. Nor is the question whether religion, or some particular religion, is rationally defensible. The question is whether the teaching and learning and practice of a religion contributes to our well-being, not just as individuals, but in our relations with others. For example, would we be better off as a society if every vestige of religion were removed from the public square? Or does Bible study and other forms of religious education tend to make us better people?
For a conservative like Dennis Prager, the answer to both questions is obvious. No and Yes, respectively. As I recall, he gives an example something like the following. You are walking down the street in a bad part of town. On one side of the street people are leaving a Bible study class. On the other side, a bunch of Hells [sic] Angels are coming out of the Pussy Cat Lounge. Which side of the street do you want to be on? For a conservative the answer is obvious. People who study and take to heart the Bible with its Ten Commandments, etc. are less likely to mug or injure you than drunken bikers who have been getting in touch with their inner demons for the last three hours. But of course this little thought experiment won't cut any ice with a dedicated leftist.
I won't spell out the leftist response. I will say only that you will enter a morass of consideration and counter-consideration that cannot be objectively adjudicated. You won't get Christopher Hitchens to give up his view.
My thesis is that there can be no objective resolution, satisfactory to every sincere, intelligent, and well-informed discussant, of the question of the value of religion. And this is a special case of a general thesis about the objective insolubility of value questions with respect to the issues that most concern us.
Another sort of value difference concerns not what we count as values, but how we weight or prioritize them. Presumably both conservatives and liberals value both liberty and security. But they will differ bitterly over which trumps the other and in what circumstances. Here too it is naive to expect an objective resolution of the issue satisfactory to all participants, even those who meet the most stringent standards of moral probity, intellectual acuity, knowledgeability with respect to relevant empirical issues, etc.
Liberal and conservative, when locked in polemic, like to call each other stupid. But of course intelligence or the lack thereof has nothing to do with the intractability of the debates. The intractability is rooted in value differences about which consensus is impossible. On the abortion question, for example, there is no empirical evidence that can resolve the dispute. Empirical data from biology and other sciences are of course relevant to the correct formulation of the problem, but contribute nothing to its resolution. Nor can reason whose organon is logic resolve the dispute. You would have to be as naive as Ayn Rand to think that Reason dictates a solution.
Recognizing these facts, we must ask ourselves: How can we keep from tearing each other apart literally or figuratively? Guns, God, abortion, illegal immigration -- these are issues that get the blood up. I am floating the suggestion that federalism and severe limitations on the reach of the central government are what we need to lessen tensions. (But isn't border enforcement a federal job? Yes, of course. In this example, what needs to be curtailed is Federal interference with a border state's reasonable enforcement of its borders with a foreign country. Remember Arizona Senate Bill 1070?)
Suppose Roe v. Wade is overturned and the question of the legality of abortion is returned to the states. Some states will make it legal, others illegal. This would be a modest step in the direction of mitigating the tensions between the warring camps. If abortion is a question for the states, then no federal monies could be allocated to the support of abortion. People who want to live in abortion states can move there; people who don't can move to states in which abortion is illegal. Each can live with their own kind and avoid having their values and sensibilities disrespected.
I understand that my proposal will not be acceptable to either liberals or conservatives. Both want to use the power of the central government to enforce what they consider right. Both sides are convinced that they are right. But of course they cannot both be right. So how do they propose to heal the splits in the body politic?