Why Can’t We All Just Get Along? Restoring Civil Government in the United States

February 7, 2010
By John

Pollsters and pundits across the political spectrum tell us that the public is fed up with politicians, personal attacks and hyper-partisanship.  They tell us that we are being divided into camps by special interests and power hungry pols, and that the volume and intensity of their disputes could splinter the country.  Many make the obvious suggestion that the political parties must work together to find the common ground needed to solve our intractable problems.   They believe (or perhaps just hope) that a restoration of civility within the ruling class will somehow open the door to lasting solutions.

This line of argument is appealing.  The rancor and mean-spiritedness has indeed gone too far.  Too many otherwise competent people have been destroyed over claims and accusations that are unhinged from fact or conscience.  Too many good people are declining to enter public life for fear of having themselves or their families dragged through the mud.  As a result, we’re left with ‘leaders’ who don’t care about their reputations, or are arrogant enough to think they can hide from their own past, or who have the resources to squelch the noise.

It’s no wonder the public thinks partisanship and a foul group of avaricious politicians are splintering the nation when we know that 60% of us already agree about how to address the hard issues of the day.  From guns to abortion to taxes to war and peace to the environment and more, Americans are largely in accord on what we should do, and have been for a long time.  But instead, it seems like almost every issue is a cage fight, where blood is drawn and no quarter is shown.

Election Rally 2012: Zombie Swing Voters?

So we have to ask – why will neither party adopt and deliver against majority positions on almost any issue?   Why do they prefer to fight each other instead of side with us?  Why do we keep electing people who promise one thing, and do the opposite when a vote comes?   Wouldn’t ‘normal’ people find some common ground – somewhere or about something?   Are we really turning into a bunch of dysfunctional and mindless zombie partisans, devouring anyone who dares disagree with us for purely atavistic satisfaction?   Or is something else going on?

We Aren’t Crazy.  We Just Act That Way.

Despite rumors to the contrary, there are actually decent people on both sides of most issue-based arguments.  There are crazed zealots of every stripe, of course, but most concerned folks are just concerned folks.  And there are valid historical, cultural, religious and geographic reasons for why good people hold their distinct views.  I have never claimed to lack a strong opinion on just about anything – but the passion of my beliefs doesn’t mean I have a monopoly on truth or special insight into what others ‘should’ prefer.  Any more than a citizen being for or against providing birth control to teenagers doesn’t make him/her stupid, arrogant or evil.  Nor do considered views on either side of debates about abortion, guns, taxes, money, religion, Miranda rights, terrorism or other contentious issues make their advocates more or less American.

America has always encouraged discussion, debate and disagreement.  From the early days of town hall meetings to today’s blogosphere and cable news, boisterous debate has been a key element in the success of our Republic.  We know through experience that we must vet our ideas in public to test their strength and value.  We want to be comfortable that our neighbors can disagree with us, and yet know we can still stand together as citizens when we’ve had an open debate and a private vote.  We need our leaders and their actions to reflect the ‘Iron sharpens Iron’ testing of their proposals in the court of public opinion.  All this is the norm for us, and we like it that way.

So why does it seem like we’ve gone over the edge – and are now at one another’s throats on so many issues?  After years of mulling over this problem, I think I’ve discerned the reason for our discontent.  And the answer is quite simple:

We have allowed our government – the Federal Government, in particular – to extend its authority into every nook and cranny of our lives to ensure that ‘fair process’ and ‘equal/social justice’ infuse all of our interactions.  But these are concepts that don’t lend themselves to the diverse, local views of a continental nation.  Therefore we must either elect people who will impose our values and judgments on others, or face having other’s views imposed upon us.

That, friends, is a recipe for civil conflict.  It is foolish.  And yes, it is un-American at its core.

Why Can’t We Just Give Each Other a Little Breathing Room?

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that Congress, the faceless bureaucracies it has created and the Federal Courts have become the arbiters of every aspect of our lives during a century of nationalizing power.   Slowly but inexorably, the Feds have co-opted, purchased and forced their way into the role of correcting all injustices, no matter their ability to do anything constructive about them or of constitutional proscriptions against their acting at all.

Leave Me Alone!!

And it is becoming absurd.  The Feds will spend $150-billion telling local schools how to operate this year, but have no schools.  They tell us what light bulbs to use – and are now making us use bulbs that are laced with mercury (and made in China).  They govern our toilets, our insulation, our food, our water rights, our clothing labels, our pools, our cars, our electrical outlets, our smoking, our medications (and the bottles they come in), our trees, our plants, our paint, our right to dig or fill holes on our land, our right to grow crops for ourselves or for sale, and so much more.  Indeed, I challenge you to find a single thing in your home or at work that doesn’t have a federal tax, approval or regulation attached to it.

Why is this happening?  Because we, as citizens, have come to expect that every perceived ‘problem’ or injustice requires ‘action’ by somebody.  And our (formerly) Sovereign States and cities – because they either lack the resources or their leaders want to join “The Show’ in DC themselves someday – have abdicated their Constitutional roles in favor of the Great Impersonal Father in Washington.  And because the Feds have the ‘magic printing press’ to fund and the will to use unchecked powers to do something about just about anything.

Checks and balances and separation of powers are now just quaint anachronisms of a pre-modern state – right?  We can’t just let things be decided locally – that would yield anarchy and we can’t have that – right?  At least that’s what our children are being told.

Why does this drive us into a perpetual fight? The charter of the Federal government is to homogenize those things under its control – to establish fair and reasonable rules that apply equally across the country.  In a Constitutional framework – this makes sense.  The foundation of our Republic rests upon the notion that the states should treat one another (and their citizens) fairly and consistently.  That’s the essence of the Equal Protection clause of the Constitution.  And the Federal role was intended to be that of an honest arbiter to ensure they did this.  So it is in the very nature of our Federal institutions that they seek to level the playing field when they get involved.  It’s just that we’re asking them to level everything now.

We are miserable about what we have done.  We have demanded the Feds assume this power, yet we despise the results.  Alabama doesn’t want to be California.  Nevada doesn’t want to be New York.  California doesn’t want to be Texas.  But in a federally run game, somebody always wins and somebody always loses because there can be only one ‘right’ answer.  And so the loss of control we all feel is real – because we’re all being forced to accept somebody else’s vision of how we should live our lives.

How Did We All Get Stuffed into the Same Tube of Toothpaste?

It's Getting a Little Cozy in Here!

Feeling a little bit squeezed?  You’re not alone.  Left or Right, Republican or Democrat, Red or Blue, Americans are feeling like somebody has them by the short hairs and won’t let go.  Whether you struggle with Bush Derangement Syndrome, Nobama Delirium, or something else, it doesn’t matter.  If your team is out of power, you likely feel that you’re on the verge of having your life choices taken away whether you like it or not.  You’re living in a big tube of toothpaste – and there’s only one way out.

This kind of angst didn’t develop overnight.  The emergence of a dominant Federal authority and the States’ forfeiture of Police Powers took decades to achieve.  And there were many factors that contributed to the shift of power from City Hall to Washington, DC – most of them well meaning and easily explainable at the time.  For example, the powers required to pursue the Civil War, implement the federal income tax, adopt the Federal Reserve System, drive direct election of Senators, launch the New Deal, attempt the Great Society, achieve the dreams of the Civil Rights movement, and more, all made sense when they were proposed.  But collectively, they enabled an ever-more-powerful Federal bureaucracy to take control.

Didn’t The Founders See This Coming?

Madison to US: Stick to the Plan

Our system was designed to be self-limiting, but we seem to have forgotten about why it was set up this way.  Our Founders thought about this topic quite a bit, and were very concerned that their creation would devolve into what we have now.  So they gave the Federal government a list of ‘enumerated powers’ – specific and significant areas of authority which were deemed to be in the general interest of all of the people and States of the United States.  The federal government was prohibited by the 10th amendment from going beyond exercise of these powers, and they set up the three independent branches to keep one another in line.  And in the same documents, the “Police Powers” – issues related to local welfare and safety (basically everything else, but notably including items like land and water use, public safety, most taxes, education and yes, religion) – were reserved exclusively to the States.

And it worked, mostly.  By enshrining in the Constitution the right of state and local governments to adopt and enforce Police Power laws and regulations according to the will of local electorates, we were largely able to stay out of each other’s way.  This didn’t work well when it came to issues of race and gender, but it did show respect for other areas where local knowledge and neighborly behavior mattered.  And it allowed individuals to petition their government in a meaningful way – by going to the mayor’s office for redress instead of pleading to a remote Senator overseeing a $4-trillion budget.  It encouraged us to move about the country and find a place whose laws and values more closely matched our own if we became frustrated with the local status quo. In so doing, it didn’t force us into a blood feud over minor disagreements.  And finally, it prompted the Feds to play an intermediary – not a directive – role when conflicts emerged.  So the Federal government remained a respected but not pre-eminent part of our lives (most of the time).

This is no longer the case.  The Federal Government has used the tools at its disposal to insert itself into our lives in ways our Founders would never have imagined.  In the process it has become the very thing the Founders feared.  And so by the very exercise of its homogenizing powers, we feel our lives and liberties are at risk.

We Did This To Ourselves

The Rough Truth of all this is that it is not the ruling classes fault, per se.  That politicians should want to exercise power is not surprising.  Their desire to ‘do something’ is natural to their role.  The problem is we are asking them to act in Washington, not at home.  We are sending people to the nation’s capital who believe it is Congress’ job to own and resolve every problem, regardless of what the Constitution or common suggest direct.  And they have installed a judiciary which largely promotes federal power as preeminent  to give them more power – hence the continuing fight over ‘strict constructionist’ vs.  ‘living constitution’ views of jurisprudence and judicial appointments.  We are all guilty of overlooking the importance of state and local governments – and ourselves – when we want solutions.  By doing this, we are inadvertently demanding the Feds homogenize us, too.

Mommy, Do These Old Papers Still Mean Something?

We the People must change our expectations of government if we want hyper-partisanship to stop, and civility to return.  We must push back on Federal intrusions into local issues if we want to put an end to this growing sense of violation.  And we must respect our right to have differences, so that our politicians will do the same.  If we don’t, we will become ever more divided and angry.   We will be impoverished by a mountain of debt and ruled by a willing group of oppressors.  We will lose our liberties, our identities and fracture the Republic.

A Path Back to Civility

Our politicians cannot find a path back to civility and good governance without our direction.  Until we stop insisting that the hard questions of our time all be solved in DC, we will continue to pressure them to defend us against our neighbors in other parts of the country.  And defend us they will – that’s their job.  But in defending us, they destroy our uniqueness and our liberties.  And we become our neighbor’s enemies.

The solution is simple, but requires diligence and fortitude.  In the election cycles to come, we must ask candidates one simple question:

What are you going to do to push the Federal Government back into its rightful, Constitutional role?

If we can elect a handful of governors, state legislators, and congresspersons opposed to further expansion of federal authority, people will who will instead promote the devolution of Police Powers back to state and local authorities, we can save the nation and the Republic.  Much must change to make this work, but we can envision a path.  A few votes in a divided Congress, a few Governors and legislatures willing to re-take their rightful powers by peacefully but firmly objecting could re-shape the country.  It will take time to achieve success – but it took us a century or more to get to this point.

The Federal Government cannot and should not rule our personal lives.  Its efforts to do so are setting us against one another, and degrading our Republic.  In need not be so.  And it must stop – before it’s too late.

Author’s note: This essay is a bit longer than a normal blog, but I think the topic is urgent enough to warrant a few extra paragraphs.  It seeks to explain why our politics and our government appear to be in decay, why rancor and bitterness seem to overwhelm reasonable decision making, and proposes a path to recovery.  If you agree, please share this and the ideas expressed with others.  If you don’t, I’d love to hear your views.

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6 Responses to “ Why Can’t We All Just Get Along? Restoring Civil Government in the United States ”

  1. The St. Louis Victim on February 8, 2010 at 7:15 am

    Great article. I refer you to my comments previously made. I love the pictures and effort. Well don kemosabe.

  2. The St. Louis Victim on February 8, 2010 at 7:15 am

    Oh, and don’t forget to kick your trolls.

  3. JoJoTo4 on February 8, 2010 at 10:16 am

    You are absolutely right again, it took a long time to get here and it well take some time to get healthy again. They take our freedom away a little at a time so we don’t see them doing it. They tell us it’s for our own good, we are protecting you! Well if this is protecting me, I’d rather protect myself and my family; after all they are my family! They don’t belong to the government as much as they would like to think! They like to scare you into believing, what they say is true, but listen to your gut feeling, don’t let them lead you into false hope, they are just trying to save their own collective butts for the fire! WE need to remember they are not Gods, they are just people like you and I some have less morals, some have more smarts but people just like you and me! If I fail to do my job what happens. I’m looking for another job! What happens to a politician that fails they get a pay raise! Let’s use our gut feeling on this get together and tell them to “shut the **** up and make it right, stop the B.S. work for us”, after all we voted them in; maybe we should vote some out. WE the people of the United States in order to form a more perfect UNION. That’s all I have to say about that! Thanks again John

  4. Asmaralda Bartipatwitch on February 8, 2010 at 10:56 am

    I loved the article. Which looks at the high level but I am more moved by the in the trenches ridiculous, like a race horse with a blinder on just one side.

    Another example of pit bull with lipstick politics. Sarah Palin took to task the democratic leaders for referring to people as “mentally retarded.” I can’t quite remember what the correct term is suppose to be, “special needs children”, no that wasn’t it, “developmentally disabled” no that wasn’t it. I guess I’ll go with a “extra chromosome 21″ no that is too harsh lets go for diversity and say a “different chromosome 21.”

    When Rush, on his show, said how crazy to be so politically correct to not be able to call “retards” “retards.” Sarah on Fox this weekend defended Rush’s comments as irony. (I did not hear a note of irony in his voice.) But Sarah continued to argue that the democrats were insensitive bigots in their terminology and Rush was just showing this with irony. It’s not like Rush to be subtle in making his point so I doubt irony was involved.

    This attack (because it was a democrat) and defend (because it was a republican) is so ludicrous. Except many republicans believe it is perfectly reasonable and that is why they watch Fox and I usually don’t.

    It’s hard to see the big picture issue when confronted with mean spirited bickering all with the intention of stepping on the other guy. I don’t have to watch the Simpsons to see mean spirited bickering I can turn on any political pundit “news” (not my definition) show and watch the republicans and democrats.

  5. Stacy Hernandez on February 8, 2010 at 11:43 pm

    John, an amazing article that is incredibly well thought out, clearly stated and insightful!! I plan to send it on to everyone in my email list..on both sides of the fence! You have so eloquently said what I have been trying to put my finger on for some time now. I knew there was an element of history, constitutionality and balance of powers that needed to be re-addressed. As I have said in the past, our constitution is the only one that I know of in the history of the world that allows its people to have a legal, peaceful revolution…and I believe we are overdue for one. You are correct in your one question that we should ask and insist of our upcoming candidates. Bring it back home! I will hazard an analogy to that of working in a company. Your direct manager should always be the first one you go to if you have a question or problem, because they work in the same department, and work directly with the same people and experiences that you do. What good would it do you to go to the President of the company when your printer runs out of ink? or go to the Shareholders to complain that your supervisor spends all his time with his buddy on the phone? Go to the person who can do the most to directly affect your situation, and it gets accomplished in a more timely fashion! What is that old axium? Think Global, Act Local! Now, I would go one step further and address your first point, how do we get truly good candidates to run?…..hmmmmm

  6. Grocery Clerk on February 10, 2010 at 10:37 pm

    This is BRILLIANT! The Doctor has delivered a diagnosis and it makes sense. The ‘quite simple answer’ is there in the first italics. It’s kind of like when I’m ambling around the house all cranky and irritable and one of the kids comes in and points out that the TV, although not playing anything, is still turned on – thereby emitting a seamingly inaudible high pitched noise that has set my teeth on edge.

    True, we can’t fix this one with the push of a button, but it explains so much, like why I keep wanting to get a bumpersticker that says: “I CAN’T WAIT ‘TILL THE SHOOTING STARTS.” No, that’s not really me (nor anybody else, in their heart of hearts, when they truly think about it) but still, I should probably copyright that because so many people are feeling at their limits.

    There has to be a reason why people are stocking up on guns and ammo , and it is’nt just because they are afraid that the time will come when they can’t get them. Even scarcity doesn’t make a person stockpile something they don’t think they will ever use. I bet very few people started hoarding buggywhips and horse blankets when factories stopped making them.

    There’s A LOT of unreast out there. It’ palpable. People ARE re-reading the Declaration Of Independence and when they get to the list of grievances they’re saying things like “this is nothing compared to nowadays” and “clearly the guys who signed this thing would have put a stop to today’s shennanigans years ago.”

    So, now that we truly are living in ‘interesting times’, what do we do?

    What I intend to do first is take the paragraph that contains this astoundingly accurate observation (“So why does it seem … italics … un-American at its core.”) and circulate it like COMMON SENSE or at least the (uncommon) common sense that it is. Then direct the reader to the blog to read the whole article (which is, as stated, not brief). And I would urge others to do the same.

    I’ve already started with my mechanic. Next my barber. I’m going to get this out to everyone I know, and send it to my elected representatives and the people I listen to on the radio. If we all do this duplication and repetition would actually be a good thing, not bad. What if we all sent it to Glenn Beck?

    We might even get a national conversation started. I may be just a grocery clerk and no graet orator or organizer, but I think we all have to try to do something before the shooting really does start.

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