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The American Divide – What Explains It and What Can We Do About It


It has been common, over the last several months, for newspapers and journals to write about the divides in American politics. In July, these articles have appeared in the New York Times:

  • Thursday July 6 – How legislatures in “red” states have developed pre-emption laws to block “blue” towns and cities from adopting progressive laws - Read

  • A July 2 article exploring the “great red north” of California-a bloc of 13 rural counties that voted for Trump - Read

  • A July 1 article about the President’s rally in front of an adoring crowd of supporters in Iowa that included “blistering” attacks on the news media - Read

  • Or check out this New York Times compilation of views from the right and the left - Read

Finally, an opinion piece on July 7 describes how moderates and conservatives are locked out of representation in metropolitan areas, while liberals are similarly unrepresented in the nation’s heartland. The authors propose a structural change that includes a combination of ranked choice voting along with multiple-representative congressional districts. This system makes a good deal of sense, but it is hard to envision that today’s representatives, feeling secure in their incumbency and perks, would consider such a radical change.

It’s not just The New York Times. Time Magazine recently included an opinion from House Member Raúl Grijalva about the divide between the Clinton and Sanders wings of the Democratic Party. And National Review in late June described how the health care debate is glossing over some real divides in core questions that truly divide Americans.

Where does this divide come from? To seek perspective, let’s go back. Throughout history, forms of government have often reflected the cultural and social context in which they arose. When humans first formed societies and it was a novel idea to govern a group of people, it made sense to instill a hierarchical form of rule, with strict codes of conduct and penalties. There is perhaps a historical rationale to the rule of kings and emperors, given the reality that for generations few humans had access to education and a general view of the world beyond their immediate surroundings; thus, it was no great leap to cede their governance to a near-divine figure and his family.

Fast forward to the Enlightenment Period, which advanced ideas such as liberty, tolerance, equality, constitutional government, and separation of church and state. The US Constitution was a product of its time, which is why it instilled these core ideas into our society and governing structure: “we the people” (consent of the governed); citizen roles and responsibilities; and a bill of rights (to protect individual rights and liberties).

Yet it is evident that in today’s society, there is deepening disagreement on the core enlightenment ideas that still frame our government. These issues, which often are reflected in the red/blue, rural/urban, conservative/liberal contrasts, include questions about what constitute basic rights: Do we have the right to own guns? Is there a right to health care and a decent standard of education? Do corporations have the same speech rights as individuals? Can religious entities decide whom to associate with based on their core moral values?

Just as unsettled are people’s feelings about their responsibilities as citizens and voters. Can consent of the governed truly be an organizing principle when people feel that power is unfairly concentrated among the elite? And who is this elite? This takes different forms for different people and groups, but may include large corporations (pharmaceuticals, oil companies, etc.), rich and powerful lobbies (NRA, Chamber of Commerce, AMA), investment banks, the news media. For liberals, it is exacerbated by Court decisions such as Citizens United, which has vastly increased political contributions by corporate entities and interest groups. For conservatives, the concentration of power is embodied in government itself, and thus any government program (even ones that increase their benefits in the short term) has a profound long-term eroding effect on people’s feelings of freedom and efficacy.

When our infant nation experienced its own divisions, as well as a stagnated governing structure, 230 years ago, many of its leading men came together to draft a constitution, which as I mentioned, reflected prevalent philosophies of the day. I am not at all ready to throw out the enlightenment ideas that flourished then and that have helped us overcome some deep difficulties as a nation. Rather, I propose that the ideas from three centuries ago need to be built upon and strengthened. We need to consider what are the elemental philosophies of our day with which we can build a consensus.

Is it time for a new constitutional convention? What would that even look like? Stay tuned for my next post…


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