Looking Left, Looking Right: Seeing Storm Clouds

Posted on 2010 December 13

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Shortly before the 2010 midterm elections, I kept hearing something eerie and foreboding from acquaintances on the political right. They’d say ominously, “There’s a revolution coming.” I must have heard it three times in one week.

A revolution? Yikes! What did this mean? Would there be blood in the streets? Political chaos? A coup d’etat?

Then the election came along, and the GOP won a majority in the House, and pundits talked about how the Tea Party Republicans would be pushing back against the recent Democratic legislative efforts — they wanted to undo ObamaCare and welfare increases and tax increases, etc etc — and I thought, “Well, maybe this is what they meant by a revolution.” Perhaps the Angry Right was now appeased, and some sort of calm would return to American politics.

Yet still I was rattled. Why has there been so much anger lately among conservatives? They often despise the president: “Obama wasn’t born here!” “He’s a socialist!” “He wants to replace our democracy with a Marxist dictatorship!” And they’re angry with Congress: “They’ve approved massive bailouts that our own children won’t be able to pay off!” “They’re trying to socialize medicine!” “They want to raise taxes sky high!” Whew.

On the other hand, my friends on the left seem to have nothing but contempt for right wingers: “They’re insane!” “They hate Obama because he’s black!” “They want the fat cats to rule over us!” “They want the government to put their religion in charge!” And, during one chilling conversation, “We’re not afraid to defend ourselves against those damn right wingers if it comes to street fighting.” Wow.

Standing between these two main political groups, I wonder why their time-honored differences have gotten so bitter in recent years. And of course I have a theory. (Drum roll.) Here it is:

Our widely diverse country has centralized its decision-making process, so that people who once lived in harmony now fight each other in Washington for control over a single national lifestyle.

Let’s break that down: When the United States got started, most people resided on farms a good distance from their neighbors. It was easy to live, think, and worship uniquely in the relative privacy of those farmhouses and small towns. And people of all faiths and lifestyles and beliefs and colors and languages streamed into America to enjoy that kind of freedom. But today we cram ourselves into gigantic metropolises where nearly everyone we meet is a stranger, and the people next door are doing it all wrong! “And they should be stopped!”

…Or should they? As our cities developed and technology brought our personal lives into conflict with others, we ran to Washington, D.C. to get laws passed that would prevent those other people from doing things that interfered with our own vision of the proper way to live. With each new law, resistance sprang up on the other side, and opponents would try to enact laws that counteract those new rules. Like a girl playing with her mom’s lipstick who puts too much on one side and evens it up by putting too much on the other side, our political system has added and added to our central authority until it — and burgeoning state governments — consume half of our money and much of our daily efforts, as we try to accommodate ourselves to the ever-growing list of regulations we must obey.

Conservatives tend to have more resources to defend — I call them “The Stakeholders” — and a large number of them are Evangelical Christians. They don’t want D.C. telling them how to manage their financial affairs, and — as they already answer to a Higher Authority at church — they certainly don’t want Washington telling them how to live. (Unless, of course, Washington decides to promote a Christian lifestyle.)

Liberals chafe at the very idea of being forced by law to observe moral niceties inflicted on them by these conservatives. Liberals can be quite spiritual in their own ways, but generally they aren’t the types of ardent churchgoers we find on the political right. Liberals want people to be free to enjoy their own lifestyles, free to be gay or smoke weed or study stem cells or immigrate here without fear. And left wingers tend to be members of the struggling classes — I call them simply “The Workers” — and they resent how the wealthy among us control vast financial resources when many of the poor can’t afford food or shelter or healthcare. “Those rich bastards should contribute more,” they mutter.

Each side, then wants to be free to pursue its own values. For conservatives, that’s money and business; for liberals, it’s lifestyle and multiculturalism. And each side wants to restrict the activities of the other side. For conservatives, it’s the rather lax ways of the working classes; for liberals, it’s the expansive estates of the propertied classes. Each side, then, is saying, “Freedom is for us but not for you.”

I’ve heard Democrats say, “America should become a social democracy like they have in Europe!” Yet Americans came to America to get away from the bureaucracy and restrictions of the Old World. Why would they want to go back? Meanwhile, I’ve heard Republicans say, “America is a nation founded on Christian principles, and it ought to respect that in the workings of government.” But the Framers were largely Deists — whom most modern churchgoers wouldn’t want in their congregations — yet they stood up for a people who had escaped the wholesale death and destruction of centuries of religious wars in Europe. They wanted nothing more of authorities telling them how to worship, and freedom of religion was so important to them that they enshrined it in the very first words of the Bill of Rights. (Go ahead, look it up; I’ll wait.)

The two main sides of American politics, then, seem inextricably opposed to each other, to the point where some among them are willing to speak darkly of “a revolution” or “street fighting”. They’ve always disagreed in fundamental ways, but it’s only recently that they’ve really begun shouting at each other. And it’s because the decisions we used to make for ourselves — about our lifestyles and beliefs — we have turned over to Washington. Now our highly diverse country is in a contest over which lifestyle will rule us all.

What if, instead, we take a page from our early history and decentralize decision-making once again? Ours is a federal republic, which means there is supposed to be plenty of room for localities to make their own decisions about how they want to live. If we agreed to let each state — and every city and community — design its own version of utopia, and leave only the most pressing common issues to be decided at the national level, maybe we could calm down and again live respectfully with each another in a system that renews its political diversity at the state and local level.

Easier said than done: the Feds have taken over so much of the decision making once left to the states that it’s hard for localities to get a law in edgewise. But several places have tried some tinkering, including towns in Vermont, Alaska, Utah and Idaho, not to mention Berkeley, Las Vegas, and San Francisco. And new technologies, including the Internet and smartphones, have brought changes that may help to decentralize the political process. We’ll talk more about those developments in a future blog.

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Posted in: Politics