February 24, 2017 by John Bruce Leonard
E Pluribus Unum
THE POLITICAL DIFFERENCES between the right and the left in the United States have grown so deep and so divisive, that it begins to seem that the country has been de facto fractured into two countries. Each lives interspersed amongst the other, but they are unable finally to come to any kind of compromise or common understanding, on account of the severity of the ideological and ethical chasms between them. Indeed, we have reached such an extremity that it begins to appear that the only real solution to our exigencies is national fragmentation, dividing the country into two or more countries, and leaving each to govern itself as it thinks best.
But of course, this solution is no solution at all: quite beyond the fact that no country which voluntarily concedes its unity, can ever maintain its sovereignty, there are insuperable historical precedents against secession in the United States, which can never be ignored nor forgot. Our nation has sealed its union with the cement of its people’s blood: no bond can be firmer than that.
Rather than despairing over this fact—which despair will only lead us the closer to civil dysfunction and increasingly violent dissent—it seems to me that our one real hope in the United States is a rebirth of the full idea of federalism as it was once understood. Many, though certainly not all, of the most controversial domestic questions of the day, as healthcare, abortion, the laws pertaining to issues around homosexuality and transgenderism, the curricula and funding of education, laws regarding drug use, even certain aspects of the environmental question and gun laws, could easily be left to the discretion of individual states, or to more local authorities yet. This would necessarily diminish the hostilities and the conflicts on the national scale.
It will be objected, on both sides, that this is equivalent to permitting half the country to pursue reckless or immoral policies. I can hear the voices of indignation already, piping up from the progressives and the liberals and the conservatives and the neo-conservatives alike. “But—my opponents, on such and such an issue, are simply wrong!” —Well? And are you, too, not wrong now and then? Leave them to their errors. If you are right that they are wrong, and if their mistakes are truly as dangerous as you believe, then they will pay the price for them in the end. Perhaps they will even learn something from it, which I guarantee they will not learn by being forced to abide the consequences of your ideas.
“But I can improve their lot, and my own!” —Do you really conceive of it as your prerogative to see to the affairs of your neighbors? Why do you not content yourself with your own? Are you so much the master of your house that you are willing to govern another man’s, as well?
“But does this not mean that we just sit by, as injustices are perpetrated right across the border?” —If the laws of that state be conceived of as injustices by those living beneath them, then let those individuals change them, or else let them move to a place more aligned to their beliefs. No one shall force them to stay, and, if they are at odds with the general tendencies of their neighbors, it may be a relief to see them go.
“And if they are too poor to move?” —Then form a charity for them, man! But do not suppose it the right nor the safe practice, to muster the forces of the distant federal government upon those who disagree with you, simply to look after your own conscience. Or, if you are so willing to mete out judgement, then at least have the decency to take it philosophically, when that same power falls to the hands of persons you consider your ideological adversaries, and they bring it to bear against you. If you would have Obama stamp your will on the entire country, then be pleased to let Trump do the same thing for another’s; and if it is instead to Trump you look to fulfill your whim, then prithee be silent when he is subseded by his radical contrary, who will make Obama seem but a pallid moderate. Take up that sword but advisedly, which might be adopted by your enemies the moment you set it down.
It seems to me, however, that this teeter-totter politics has gotten us nowhere, and certainly no where good. It is really time to try something new. I propose, for the good of our Union, that those issues be thrown back onto the state legislatures which can be, and that we let them hash these matters out as their constituencies would have them. We have grown so accustomed to looking to Washington to resolve our problems (detestable reliance), that we will no doubt find something frictive in this suggestion. To think that not a hundred miles away from us people are living in very different political conditions than we are! But I say—no one compels you to go to California, or Texas, or Colorado, or Alaska: and if you are so certain that you are in the right and that the policies contrary your own are disastrous, then let experience be the proof of it. Let California or Texas or Colorado or Alaska put their ideals to the test. If they prove as detrimental as you believe, then in not so very long the truth of it will out, and you will have the incomparable satisfaction of seeing yourself vindicated by no lesser authority than reality itself.
My proposal has much against it, not least of all the expectations and habits of our people and our politicians. Fine place to begin, however, is in celebrating whenever a president shows the will to concede a little of the power which has been slowly accumulating around his office like cholesterol. And if there is any magnanimity left in our people, then let them reveal it here, by celebrating even such concessions of presidential power as are made by their own side. I cite as exemplary of this, the recent actions of the Trump administration against Obama’s initiative regarding transgender students in public schools. The root question here, is not what one thinks about transgender students and bathrooms; it is what one thinks about federal power.
My proposal also has the pleasant consequence of limiting the ever proliferating number of issues which now overflood our presidential races and make it impossible for the average citizen to discriminate sensibly and advisedly between the candidates on the ballot. The issues redressable by the federal executive would be nicely reduced, and voters would find themselves facing a manageable handful of really essential questions each campaign season: most prominently federal spending, immigration, and international policy.
Above all: if we are Americans first, and not merely democrats or republicans, then it seems to me that the only road toward preserving our unity, is in permitting our diversity. The creed and motto of our country will defend this conclusion more succinctly than I can do.