As the words and images by which we live our public and private lives coarsen and become more violent, as we identify in ways antagonistic to one another, it is surprising only that instances of violence among us are not more frequent. A civil conflict in some ways more destructive of social peace than that of 1861-65 has been building for some time.
Recall that Abraham Lincoln rightly founded his hope for renewed friendship among Americans on the fact that all “prayed to the same God.” But today’s Americans live by mutually abhorrent ethical guides. The armies that raged against one another agreed about right and wrong regarding almost everything. They shared notions of honor, propriety, as well as manners, that are quaint, if not strange, in our time.
The Civil War’s divide was almost wholly political. By contrast, today we tend to regard people on the other side of political divides as bad or inferior. We loathe one another, and fear that the other side will impose its alien ways on us.
This is because today’s politics encompass far more than politics in America ever had. Modern government’s material powers are awesome enough: Your business, or the one for which you work, must function by rules you can do nothing about. Will you be able to retire? That depends on the government. That goes for any number of regulations, including how much water you can have in your shower, what healthcare you may have at what cost.
Lately, however, government has also seized moral power over what makes us what we are. When the courts took it upon themselves to reform American society, to banish prayer from schools as well as all manner of “discrimination”; when they discovered that the Constitution protects obscenity and that abortion is the most absolute of all civil rights, they made government into a party to social war and legitimized the currency of inflammatory language. That extends to how our children are educated. Object too hard to its prescriptions, put yourself on the wrong side, and you’re in trouble.
As the people divided into antagonistic groups, politicians have offered them the favors they think they want, not least among which is the denigration of other groups. Political insults are an old, mostly non-violent story. But today’s partisan insults reflect the denial of the other side’s legitimacy as fellow citizens. For a generation, politicians of the Left have accused their political opponents of criminality, including terrorism. This is happening as the U.S government officially maintains (lest it be Islamophobic) that any American is as likely to be a terrorist as any other, and as it has militarized policing but failed to provide personal security. All this portends political violence, both private and public.
As politics became a question of which groups would have whose standards forced upon them on pain of being treated—at least verbally—as criminals against the environment, as “hostage takers,” as racists, and so forth, by such as former Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, President Obama, Hillary Clinton, etc. why should not ordinary bureaucrats use their official powers and officious influence to put down those whom their superiors designate as the enemies of all good things? Why wonder that a hyper-partisan shot up some of these very targets of officious opprobrium while they were playing baseball?
Why should not the other side try to reciprocate, perhaps with interest? That, however is the spiral of social dissolution, of war.
Already, notables walk around with security details, ordinary people carry guns, and America is increasingly wrapped in razor wire. Nor will politicians wean themselves from identity politics. They have learned that, given omni-competent, omnipresent, omnipotent government, it is the secret of success. That is why 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.” How much personal anxiety and partisan animus would be eliminated were the federal government, for example, to restrict its role in health care to ensuring a national marketplace? That—not current politicians’ divisive somersaults—is the role America’s 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.
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