Updated: Sep 30
News of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg's death has rocked the U.S. political landscape. In an eerie echo of the left's shrieks of horror accompanying Trump's electoral victory in 2016, many Progressives are expressing dismay and disbelief that this president may be able to seat a third justice during his first term just weeks before the upcoming presidential election. This on top of a violent racial divide that some commentators are calling an "empire-ending event."
We are caught in the violent throws of bitter partisanship. We are seeing startling and frequent references to a potential civil war. It shouldn't be this way. It doesn't have to be, but it may be too late to alter course.
Each election is declared "the most important election in our lifetime" (Wilson, 2020). That anyone feels this way is stark evidence that something is terribly wrong.
What's wrong is simple, but likely impossible to fix.
We Have Opened the Watertight Doors Meant to Keep the Ship From Sinking
The hulls of modern ships are built with bulwarks that create a protective honeycomb of watertight compartments. If one is breached, the ensuing flood is isolated and contained.
The American ship of state was designed in a similar fashion. Vertical and horizontal powers, checks and balances, auxiliary precautions, and other devices were put in place to curb, channel, and isolate power so that overreach or corruption in one area would be prevented from spreading long enough for corrections to be made.
A ship captain who opens the doors between bulwarks, say, for the convenience of passage through the ship's interior, threatens the ship's safety. If the hull is breached, the open doors undermine the protective barriers and the ship fills with water.
The ever-increasing centralization of power to the federal government during the last one hundred years is the equivalent of opening the doors between bulwarks. The stakes of who holds the reins of power are so high that citizens are literally despondent when the other party wins from one election to another.
Both parties are desperate to retain power. Democrats, with the best of intentions, opened the watertight doors of government to empower a vast federal bureaucracy and fund an enormous and unsustainable welfare state that arguably impoverishes its recipients (Marvin, 2016).
Republicans, with less honorable intentions, have used the power levers put in place by Democrats to fund crony-capitalist corporate subsidies and a quasi-imperialistic military-industrial complex. More and more of our citizens, institutions, universities, unions, states, and businesses rely on federal funding and "friendly" policies and regulations for their sustenance.
How did this happen? The Individual v. The Community
The short answer is, generally speaking, the founding conservative viewpoint is one of natural rights and might be summarized by these words by Thomas Jefferson, author of the Declaration of Independence and 3rd president of the United States:
"all men are created equal, ... endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, ... [and] to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed."
The progressive viewpoint rejects this view or regards it as insufficient and might be summarized by these words by Woodrow Wilson, a foremost progressive philosopher and 28th president of the United States:
"The absolute right of the community to determine its own destiny and that of its members. Men as communities are supreme over men as individuals. Limits of wisdom and convenience to the public control there may be: limits of principle there are, upon strict analysis, none."
These are fundamental differences in worldview. The politics and policies these perspectives gave rise to are also fundamentally different. In practice, both parties have arguably abandoned the founding view and have adopted the progressive view. Government now exists as a way to take from some, including generations unborn, and give to others. Both parties are engaged in a tug-of-war over the levers of this power.
Human Nature & Natural Rights
The United States was founded on the theory of "natural rights", a particular conception of human nature, morality, and man's place in the universe that, they thought, transcends time and place. Therefore, the individual is sovereign with rights bestowed by nature and nature's God that cannot be justly alienated from her by government, i.e. government is constituted to protect those rights - end of story. The purpose of government, they argued, should never change, though its methods might require adaptation to circumstances. Anything else you want to accomplish - healthcare, education, housing, welfare, etc. should happen at other levels of society: states, counties, cities, charities, etc., but not at the federal level of government.
The founders believed that human nature does not change and that government must be mapped to that nature. For example, human passion will sometimes overrule human reason and therefore must be constrained. They believed that a federal government's primary purpose to protect negative human rights necessitated a limited view of government. They instituted what are termed in the Federalist Papers as the forementioned "auxiliary precautions" - horizontal and vertical separation of powers, checks and balances, representation, an independent judiciary, etc.
Progressivism is founded in the concepts of "historical contingency" and "social expediency". Major thinkers included Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, Herbert Croly, John Dewey, Robert Follette, Frank Goodnow, and many others. They were intelligent, well-read, articulate, and straightforward about their objectives.
"Historical contingency" is a deep faith in historical progress. Human nature isn't static.
Rather, the idea is that we are getting better as a species over time. Therefore, governments are becoming less of a threat to their citizens. They believed the founders were right and proper in their efforts, but times have changed and our form of government must change with it.
Hence, the restraints on government can be lessened or removed and the power of government can be harnessed and expanded to deal with the difficult problems facing society - industrialization, immigration, poverty, racism, illiteracy, the environment, etc. This has resulted in the intentional opening of the bulwark doors.
"Social expediency" is the idea that the rights of man come not from a divine being, but from the legislature, who, seeing the changing needs of society, codifies positive rights (as opposed to negative). Therefore, an individual's liberty or the scope of individual freedom of action is not bestowed and defined by a Creator, but by the changing needs of society from generation to generation.
The Victory of Progressivism
Arguably, progressivism won over conservatism 130 years ago, at least in the halls of academia, just as postmodernism replaced progressivism in the universities and we are beginning to see post-postmodernism or trans-modernism taking shape.
But our politics and culture at large lag significantly, as they always do. There are many who still idolize the founding era (classic liberals/conservatives). Many others revere the New Deal and similar initiatives (modern liberals/progressives). We've begun to see the postmodernists enter the popular ring (intersectionality, etc.). And of course, there's a marvelous mix and blend of these and many other factors at play in our incredibly complex culture and world.
Above, I've offered a simplistic, quick explanation, but I think it helps explain the division in our country. We are split at the core. We use the same words, but with different meanings. Ideological division is a precursor to physical division and confrontation.
Similar Objectives, Different Methods
It does give me hope that most Americans have similar objectives - that we should feed the hungry, clothe the naked, liberate the captive, lift the oppressed, heal the sick, etc.
Our ideology, however, dictates *how* we think these problems should be solved.
Progressives believe the government should be tasked with solving these problems, because after all, "we" are the government, right?
Traditional conservatives believe that government is a force that must be constrained. That beyond the protection of natural rights, other societal forces should be brought to bear on societal problems: churches and other non-profits, academia, business, communities, families, the media, the arts, etc., all have critical roles to play.
Progressives see government gridlock as an agonizing frustration. Conservatives see it as an intended feature - watertight doors to protect the ship of state.
There are many other examples of how these worldviews shape how citizens in different places on the political spectrum will perceive the same circumstances very differently.
My Plea - The Solution
The only way back from the brink is for both parties to renounce the centralization of power and restore the principles of federalism and subsidiarity. Close the watertight doors. Restore the integrity of the bulwarks that protect the ship of state.
Progressives don't have to give up their ideals - we can still solve society's problems, just at a local level, fighting the battle on 50+ smaller fronts - the "laboratories of democracy" approach championed by Ginsburg's predecessor, Justice Louis Brandeis - rather than one all-or-nothing war in Washington.
Conservatives, however, must abandon the scourge of crony-capitalism. They must be reconverted to the principles of natural rights, limited government, and free-market capitalism.
For those interested in a brief history of progressivism I recommend the following lecture by Dr. Ronald J. Pestritto, the Graduate Dean and Professor of Politics at Hillsdale College. I highly recommend the entire "Constitution 101" lecture series available for free from Hillsdale.
Marvin, Patrick. “Researchers Say Welfare Programs Harm Recipients.” Maine Policy Institute, 4 Apr. 2016, https://mainepolicy.org/researchers-say-welfare-programs-harm-recipients/.
Wilson, Reid. “On The Trail: Why 2020 Is the Most Important Election in Our Lifetime.” The Hill, 7 Feb. 2020, https://thehill.com/homenews/campaign/479580-on-the-trail-why-2020-is-the-most-important-election-in-our-lifetime.