Predictably, our politics and public life have become meaner, uglier, and now violent. How do we get back what has been lost?
America’s cold civil war has been heating up. It was only a matter of time until it started turning violent. In a country where major corporations sponsor the theatrical murder of the President because they so dislike his policies, where millions are led to cheer a mockup of his bloody severed head, where authoritative figures excoriate Republicans as criminals against the environment, accuse their policies of being genocidal, and them as racists, etc. one need not wonder that a hyper-partisan shot up the targets of officious opprobrium while they were playing baseball.
This has been a long time coming. Immediately, it will call forth more of the fortress mentality and behavior that has been tightening its grip on America for more than a generation. In the longer term, unless we start eliminating the real, lively, reasons why Americans increasingly regard each other as enemies, this civil war will turn much, much hotter.
It was not always so. While America was fighting Germany and Japan — no strangers to dirty tricks — the Houses of Congress were open to all. Politicians and officials walked the streets unafraid. Within living memory, Harry Truman took walks on Pennsylvania Avenue. Throughout the Cold War against the Soviet Union that did its monumental best to subvert us, all assumed, correctly, that ordinary Americans’ natural law abiding-ness and vigilance would ensure elementary safety. Alexis de Tocqueville had described the world’s safest country because, in America, “the criminal is every man’s enemy” — because, in that America, there was no distinction between the people and the government.
By 9/11, because this was no longer so, the U.S government reacted by wrapping itself in razor wire. Notables got security details. The government no longer trusted the people, and the people no longer trusted the government. Increasingly, they did not trust one another. People began walking around armed, as in the wild West.
The distance between the government — state and local, but especially federal — and the people, as well as ordinary people’s distrust and enmity toward one another, are the necessary, inescapable, result of 1) government having taken on, not to say usurped, outsized powers over individuals’ lives; 2) having divided the people into groups to which politicians offer the favors they think these groups want, not least among which is the denigration of other groups.
Government nowadays tells you how your children will be educated. You have almost no way of objecting. Object too hard, and you’re in trouble. That goes for any number of regulations, including how much water you can have in your shower, what health care you may have at what cost. Your business, or the one for which you work, must function by rules you can’t do anything about. Will you be able to retire? That depends on the government. Which party controls the White House, Congress, or the State House may or may not make a difference. But the politicians tell us that these are life and death choices for us and that the other side is only waiting for the chance to hurt us. With so much at stake, why not believe them? Why not act?
Admonishing politicians to stop firing up their supporters runs against all they have learned about what makes for success in today’s America, where omni-competent, omni-present, omni-important government is the most salient reality. Changing that reality, reducing government’s role as fulfiller or destroyer of lives, as embodiment and arbiter of good and evil, is the only way by which we may do away with politics as competitive throat-shoving, the only chance for preventing our warming civil war from boiling over.
American federalism is the time-tested, homegrown way by which government can become “us” once again, rather than “them.” For example, not so long ago, in an America with half the present population there were ten times as many public school districts as there are today. That means that today’s Americans have only five percent of the power over their schools as did their grandparents. How much personal anxiety and partisan animus would be eliminated by returning to that degree of popular control! How much anxiety and animus would be eliminated were the federal government, for example, to restrict its role in health care to ensure a national marketplace? That — not current politicians’ divisive somersaults — is the role that our founders envisaged in the Constitution.
This sort of thinking, rather than competitive partisan blaming and increased security measures, offers the only possibility of reducing future instances of partisan violence.
Elvert Barnes/Creative Commons