Andrew O’Hehir’s latest essay in Slate is pretty damn provocative. It’s titled Welcome to the New Civil War and it pulls no punches.
So even though it’s a truism of American public discourse that the Civil War never ended, it’s also literally true. We’re still reaping the whirlwind from that long-ago conflict, and now we face a new Civil War, one focused on divisive political issues of the 21st century – most notably the rights and liberties of women and LGBT people – but rooted in toxic rhetoric and ideas inherited from the 19th century.
We’ve just emerged from a presidential campaign that exposed how hardened our political and cultural divide has become, and how poorly the two sides understand each other. Part of the Republican problem, in an election that party thought it would win easily, was that those who felt a visceral disgust toward both the idea and the reality of President Barack Obama simply could not believe that they didn’t represent a majority. As many Republicans are now aware, the party now faces an existential crisis. It’s all very well to go on TV and talk about attracting Latinos and downplaying cultural wedge issues. But the activist core of the Republican Party is neo-Confederate, whether it thinks of itself that way or not. It isn’t interested in common cause with Mexicans or turning down the moral thermostat. Just ask Rick Santorum: What it wants is war.
As anyone who has read this blog for a while knows, I believe in a certain power that comes from regionalism. I think the notion that California has a different economy and culture than Georgia is OK and that as Justice Brandeis said, “It is one of the happy incidents of the federal system that a single courageous state may, if its citizens choose, serve as a laboratory; and try novel social and economic experiments without risk to the rest of the country.”
But O’Hehir’s essay raises another larger question, which is what happens when individual states circumscribe the rights of individuals in areas like abortion or gay rights? As Alex Bowles wrote to me, “so while decentralization improves decision making in many, many areas, there are some things—like equality before the law—that are no longer subject to debate. To the extent that humanity is universal, there’s no need for regional considerations to enter the picture.”
So this begs the question. Is it possible to have the kind of decentralized regional experimentation that I think leads to innovation while still preserving that Federal power to enforce “equality under the law” for gays, women, immigrants and minorities? I think this is what has to happen, but it may take a showdown with the neo-confederates before it happens.