A lot of people are upset about the direction of the nation. Nearly a two to one ration finds that the nation is on the wrong track, according to a Rasmussen poll. That fits with the ongoing controversies sweeping our mindscapes involving protests of various kinds.
A lack of faith in our government should be one thing which unites us. It’s something of an American tradition, after all. Some think it’s involved in vast conspiracies. Some want to stockpile arms against it. Some think it’s just plain incompetent. Some think our history is a complete lie.
No one, anywhere, thinks that government is going to solve all of our problems. No one trusts it completely. No one thinks our taxation system is completely fair. No one thinks that the system always produces justice.
Yet protests about our system or our government are the surest way to spark a highly emotional shouting match that transcends any ability to get anything done. And there may be a good reason.
Our system is built on consensus, not majority rule. Our Constitution is complex. The checks and balances built in are designed to make sure that nothing happens until nearly everyone agrees on the right course of action, one way or the other. This is less about a potential “tyranny of the majority” than it is a genuine fear of strong government inherent in the wisdom of our Founding Fathers.
When they sat down to write a Constitution they essentially codified the process that they went through to create one mind out of many through the darkest days of the Revolution. They didn’t agree on much when they first arrived in Philadelphia to hammer out their complaints against British Rule. Independence itself wasn’t necessarily part of the plan. But they worked through it all and gradually realized that the key to self governance in a Democratic Republic was indeed consensus building.
This is the only reason we can speak of them as one thing, the Founding Fathers.
We all share their suspicion of government, but currently lack their wisdom as to how we get through it. Protesting the national anthem starts one firestorm, demanding a roll-back of social programs another. Aren’t these impulses all based in a shared value, a distrust of government with too much power to make our lives miserable?
Yet there is a difference, a very critical one.
Some of us see America primarily as a set of values. If anything is going to get us through the crises of today it will be bedrock principles. People with this mindset tend, in the extreme, to see the Founding Fathers as divinely inspired, recipients of a blessing unique on this planet. Symbolism is critical to this group, often defined by respect for the values which transcend whatever the government of the moment is.
Some of us see America as more or less another nation. There is a responsibility to take care of each other as any nation would, which is to say share resources and take care of the future and the vulnerable. Action is what matters most to this group, and a lack of it is frustrating.
Naturally, most Americans have some sense of both perspectives. But all of us see the nation as one more than the other, and that defines our politics.To one group, disrespecting the flag and the anthem is going to be extremely important. To another group, the flag has a mixed history as a symbol of oppression as much as freedom.
This splits well between left and right, but far from perfectly. One side is talking about values, the other side is talking about action. It’s the difference between the value of faith and good works, a debate which has split Christian denominations for millenia.
Cultural divides in America are often well explained by differences in Christian faith. We are not as secular or inclusive as many would like to think.
The difference between America as a kind of faith versus America as a system for performing good works has defined our ability to talk past each other for a long time. Democrats rarely appreciate the value of morality, values, and symbolism. Republicans rarely appreciate the value of empathy and a few kind words of support. The two sides always use language that speaks to their own base, meaning there is no common language of both symbols and connection which both can use.
Is America on the wrong track? Clearly that is the one thing we agree on. But there is more to it than that. Our ability to make our own system work is hampered not just by our lack of faith in it, but our different visions regarding what our system is about in the first place.