WASHINGTON, December 5, 2015 – Americans are split into two utterly opposed camps at odds over guns, gays, climate change, abortion, the welfare state, healthcare, free speech, and national security. In the media, on the streets, and in workplaces, conservatives and progressives battle over everything.
The bitterness of this internal division has threatened civil war since 1789, unleashed it once, and may do so again.
That the United States circa 2015 is in a state of pre-civil war should terrify all Americans. As Union General William T. Sherman, responsible for the deaths of at least 3% of his countrymen noted while blazing through Georgia in 1864, “War is hell.”
Thus, because civil wars are particularly hellacious, they are especially to be avoided. Ferocious civil wars in Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, and Yemen, and the 1990s-era wars in Yugoslavia and Rwanda, make clear what happens when a nation comes apart.
Brothers fight brothers, blood runs, things burn, and people die—by the millions.
Nearly a score of civil wars ongoing across the globe attests that prudence surrenders to passion all too frequently.
Civil wars happen when three trends merge to create a perfect storm.
First, the impetus to civil war is ideological, not economic or territorial. A nation splits on the basis of deeply incompatible beliefs, values, and ideas about the relationship between the state and the people. There is a divide about how life, liberty and property should be resolved. There is a divide about who resolves conflicts and how.
Ideologically hostile “tribes” trapped within national boundaries find no zone of agreement and no modus vivendi that allow them to coexist.
Second, a nation lurching toward civil war has abandoned its formula for resolving disputes.
Many national constitutions limit governmental powers and delimit boundaries between public and private. People in well-governed republics can choose their versions of the good life within the private sphere.
Where issues are inherently public in nature and thus within governmental province, the constitution provides for the resolution of political and legal conflicts. When followed, constitutions remove many issues from public life, leaving individuals free to pursue happiness so long as that pursuit does not intrude on the rights of others.
And constitutions provide rules and principles for fairly and authoritatively resolving what disputes remain. Yet inhabitants of nations in cold civil wars no longer agree as to constitutional meanings and reject any limits upon government powers, or, worse, abandon constitutions to the passions of temporary political majorities—damning the rights of minorities in the process.
Third, both sides in pre-civil war mode see the other not merely as misguided but as evil, and view their ideas, and those who hold them, as beyond persuasion—fit solely for excommunication and even extermination.
All these preconditions currently exist in the U.S. of 2015.
Contemporary American conservatives revere the military, the police, the family, houses of worship, and gun ownership. They champion a limited federal government charged simply with the defense of life, liberty, and property against domestic and foreign threats. They reject taxing and spending to feed a welfare state.
Conservatives ground notions of the good life in traditional morality and demand government leave them, their values, and their wallets alone. President Thomas Jefferson best articulated conservative ideology when he opined that “that government is best which governs least[.]”
American progressives, in contrast, champion Planned Parenthood, ObamaCare, liberal academia, gay marriage, and activism against “climate change.”
For progressives, government is but an engine to promote “social justice” through wealth redistribution. President Franklin D. Roosevelt, in a 1944 State of the Union Address, articulated a progressive ideology that includes rights to employment, food, clothing, recreation, housing, medical care, retirement, education, and recreation.
Social welfare expenditures trump national security, and because combatting Islamist terrorism would take money away from transformative projects it cannot be acknowledged to exist. Further, gun control is needed to defang preemptively conservative opposition and the capacity to resist the taxes and regulations at the heart of the fundamentally transformative progressive project.
In short, progressives must tax and spend, while grabbing guns and civil liberties, to prevail.
This ideological divide maps across every issue facing Americans today—gun rights, ObamaCare, gay marriage, abortion, free speech, “climate change,” immigration, radical Islam, and so forth.
Conservatives and progressives could not agree as to a common core of facts and assumptions upon which to negotiate differences even if they were willing to try.
Worse, Americans have completely bifurcated on the subject of the Constitution, which for conservatives prohibits virtually all of what progressives intend.
The document is a series of “thou shalt nots” directed toward the government. Those “thou shall nots” protect your individual rights to life, liberty, property and, particularly through the Second Amendment, enable the people to resist tyranny.
For progressives, the Constitution is a fundamentally flawed anachronism that judges must interpret to allow the will of the masses (or even unelected judges) to fundamentally transform the nation. The tortured Supreme Court logic on ObamaCare and gay marriage and the reactions after the fact—despair on the part of conservatives, and a celebratory White House illuminated in the rainbow flag—illustrates just how divided Americans are over the meaning of the Constitution’s power over our laws and liberty.
Third, American progressives have ramped up their demonization of conservatives.