America’s Second Civil War

Published August 20, 2013

“War,” said Carl von Clausewitz, “is but a continuation of politics with the admixture of other means.”

But as every school child used to know, if A=B, then B=A. So if Clausewitz is correct, then politics is simply war without the killing (except in Egypt, but that’s another topic for another time). What brings Clausewitz to mind today is the current state of U.S. politics, viewed through the prism of something else every school child used to know, Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address.

Lincoln’s modern-day successor, President Obama, famously proclaimed after winning the Iowa caucuses in 2008, “We are not a collection of red states and blue states. We are the United States of America.” But like so much of what the president has said these past five years, no matter how well-intended, that simply isn’t true. Rather than being united, the states and the people seem more divided than ever.

On a micro level, of course, all states are purple because voters still (nominally) vote individually, and even in the most lopsided inner-city voting precincts or wards no one party ever gets 100 percent of the vote (although in Milwaukee and Chicago they come close). But on a macro level most states fall into one category or the other, with very few “swing” states left in national elections, as the last two elections have proved.

What most divides the voters of these states?

Again, on a micro level, a voter may cast a ballot for any number of reasons unrelated to actual policy positions: because of the candidate’s name, appearance, or party affiliation; because that’s how members of the voter’s family have always voted; because that’s how the precinct worker who dragged the voter to the polls instructed the voter to vote. But on a macro level it’s fair to say that American voters are largely in one of two camps: those who want more government and those who want less.

Those who want more, who used to call themselves “liberals” but now seem to prefer “progressives,” tend to see “rights” as human wants and needs, favor group “rights” over individual liberties, and follow the guiding light of “fairness,” which dictates that anyone who has more than they do must give some of it to them.  In short, progressives favor government coercion, believe in the decision-making ability of “experts,” and willingly surrender individual liberties to the politically powerful in exchange for nominally larger government “benefits.”   At bottom, they are statists.

Those who want less government for the most part call themselves “libertarians” or “conservatives,” understand “rights” as freedom from government interference (i.e., coercion by others), favor individual liberties over group rights, and follow the guiding light of incentives, which implicitly understand that human behavior seeks rewards and that a sound system of government therefore rewards rather than penalizes industriousness and individual responsibility.  In short, libertarians and conservatives believe in market-based incentives, in the rights and responsibilities of individual citizens to decide most things for themselves, and in limiting government power to what is needed to preserve order. To coin a phrase, they believe in ordered liberty.

A century after the dawn of the Progressive Era in American politics, at the federal level the statist view has largely prevailed. With a cabinet level agency for nearly every human activity, the national government has largely taken over the banking, housing, andeducation industries (including so-called “private” and “not-for-profit” universities), and until very recently was seen as poised to complete its takeover of the health care industry. Yet some states, and the people, are beginning to push back.

In the case of health care alone, a majority of states encompassing 53 percent of America’s population and 52.4 percent of the country’s Electoral College votes sued the federal government in 2011 to stop Obamacare’ s “individual mandate” to buy health insurance or to be assessed a tax penalty by the IRS, albeit ultimately without success at the Supreme Court. Nonetheless, 26 states have declined to participate in the so-called “health exchanges,” and an additional seven states have elected to take only partial responsibility for the exchanges.

Whether because of this pushback or for political expediency, the president himself has subsequently refused to implement the law as passed, granting waivers from and postponing implementation of its most salient features except, unfortunately, for the “individual mandate.”

On a whole host of issues – of which health care is but one – it remains to be seen how the continuing battle between government control and individual liberty will be resolved. But as Lincoln observed in his Gettysburg Address, a nation cannot long endure half slave and half free.

Which do you want to be?