The Very Deep Roots of Our Political Divide
In this post, I will explain how today’s vast political divide in America is neither superficial nor temporary, but rather rooted in deep philosophical differences that go back centuries. What’s more, there may in fact be a biological component.
I highlight reasons why the divide has been bubbling under the surface since the USA was founded but has now come out in full force with the 2016 Presidential election and its aftermath. I explain how the Conservatives are succeeding with a long-term effort to reshape our courts following the vision of our recently deceased Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia.
In the conclusion, I provide hope that Americans can move forward despite our current deep polarization.
Biological differences between Conservatives and Liberals?
In a 2011 study (see Political Orientations Are Correlated with Brain Structure in Young Adults), researchers studied MRI brain scans of people with various political points of view. The researchers claim:
We found that greater liberalism was associated with increased gray matter volume in the anterior cingulate cortex, whereas greater conservatism was associated with increased volume of the right amygdala. … Individuals with a large amygdala are more sensitive to fear, which, taken together with our findings, might suggest the testable hypothesis that individuals with larger amygdala are more inclined to integrate conservative views into their belief system. Similarly, it is striking that conservatives are more sensitive to disgust … Thus, it is conceivable that individuals with a larger ACC have a higher capacity to tolerate uncertainty and conflicts, allowing them to accept more liberal views. “
For other similar studies, see Biology and political orientation.
These studies show the possibility that there might be a biological/genetic component to the difference between Liberals and Conservatives.
Original Conservative and original Progressive?
In the 2013 book The Great Debate: Edmund Burke, Thomas Paine, and the Birth of Right and Left, Yuval Levin argues that Edmund Burke (1729-1797) was the original Conservative and Thomas Paine (1737-1809) was the original Progressive. While many agree that Burke was a founder of modern Conservative thought, it is more open to debate whether Paine is a founder of modern Progressivism. Nevertheless, Levin argues:
Burke and a lot of conservatives after him is first struck by what is working, because he begins with very low expectations of human beings. He thinks we’re fallen creatures, we’re very limited in our abilities. And so he’s amazed by anything that works at all, and wants to build on it, rather than try to uproot society and fix problems in a radical way.
Paine thinks, there is no excuse for failure, things should work better, and that means that, when we see a society in which injustice reigns, we have to start from scratch and in a radical way change things….
Paine says society should seek to apply scientific knowledge, technical knowledge to address our problems. Burke says society is much too complicated to be amenable to those kinds of technical solutions, and instead we should try to use social knowledge, dispersed knowledge that we can really only access through the institutions that exist between the individual and the state, the families, civil society, markets, to try to make the best of knowledge that society as a whole possesses, rather than any specific group of experts. ” (From this page)
Perhaps Paine tended to think “Yes We Can!”, whereas Burke was more inclined to “No You Can’t!”
Note that Burke argued strongly in Parliament against the use of force with the American Colonies. Paine was in the Colonies starting 1776 where he authored Common Sense, which was instrumental in building revolutionary fervor among the Colonists.
They were philosophical enemies on the French Revolution. Burke authored a devastating critique of the revolution, while Paine was an active participant, regarded as an ally of the Girondists.
US Constitution: federalists vs. anti-federalists
At the US Constitutional Convention in 1787, there were two main camps: the federalists (led by Alexander Hamilton, John Jay and John Adams) and the anti-federalists (led by Thomas Jefferson, James Monroe and Samuel Adams). While nearly everyone agreed that the national government needed to be stronger than what was currently present (due to the Articles of Conferation), the federalists wanted a strong national government, whereas the anti-federalists wanted to give the states more power.
At the convention, James Madison, the Father of the Constitution, was mostly in line with the federalists, but differed on some economic issues. Negotiations and compromise led to a Constitution with a strong national government with many enumerated powers (along with a vague and broadly worded Necessary and Proper clause), but the belief of most attendees, particularly Madison, was that all other powers (i.e., any powers not explicitly enumerated) would go to the states.
At the time, Madison and Hamilton were close partners. Madison, Hamilton and Jay authored the Federalist Papers, which were essential for convincing the states to ratify the new Constitution.
Almost immediately after Washington took office in 1789, Madison drafted the first ten amendments (the Bill of Rights) to fix key omissions. The amendments enumerated a set of constraints on the new government, such as not preventing freedom of speech or religion. The amendments used words like “shall not infringe,” which resulted in future unintended consequences (see below).
Instantly, the real world rears its ugly head
In the very first Washington administration (1789-1993), the country was on shaky ground. Never before had mankind attempted such a grand experiment in popular government. There were no national institutions, massive war debt, no revenue, unstable currency, no army, no customs and many citizens who were hugely skeptical or suspicious of a national government. The Constitution had barely been ratified. At that time, large European powers, particularly Great Britain, expected the Colonies to collapse and ultimately revert to recolonization.
To address these real-world problems and push the country towards stability, Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton proposed several major national programs, all of which were denounced by Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson (and his buddy James Madison), but which were approved by President George Washington and passed by Congress following the process defined in the Constitution. These included:
- A plan to pay off the heavy debt of the Revolutionary War. “The debt of the United States … was the price of liberty.” To get enough support for paying off the debt, he brokered a deal with rivals Jefferson and Madison to locate the nation’s capital on the northern border of Virginia. Hamilton’s attack on the debt helped secure the confidence and respect of foreign nations.
- A revenue system based on customs duties and excise taxes. His tariffs were strategic, designed to increase the economic strength of the young nation. He set tariffs low on British imports to encourage the development of American trade and manufacturing. His financial plans resulted in growth from a mere eight new corporations in the preceding decades to some 311 in the 1790s.
- The First Bank of the United States, which served as a depository for public funds and assisted the Government in its financial transactions. The First Bank issued paper currency, used to pay taxes and debts owed to the Federal Government.
- The US Coast Guard
- Plans for a United States Mint
- The government’s first standing army, created to put down the Whiskey Rebellion, thereby enforcing the sovereignty of the national government
- Initial plans, curriculum and site for the future West Point
Hamilton and Washington needed to address real-world problems, but limited government advocates such as Jefferson and Madison were vociferously against the expanding role of the federal government.
After years of failing to change things via arguments within the executive and legislative branches, finally Jefferson and Madison tried to defeat one of Hamilton’s programs in the courts, but unsuccessfully.
With McCulloch v. Maryland (1819) Chief Justice John Marshall upheld the Second Bank of the United States, saying the Congress can use “any means calculated to produce the end,” giving Congress “the capacity to avail itself of experience, to exercise its reason, and to accommodate its legislation to circumstances.” According to McCulloch, unless otherwise inconsistent “with the letter and spirit of the constitution,” any law that is “appropriate,” “plainly adapted to that end,” and “really calculated to effect any of the objects entrusted to the federal government” is valid under the Necessary and Proper Clause. (From Necessary and Proper Clause)
Other future court decisions would justify broad national powers based partly on the phraseology of the Bill of Rights. As mentioned above, the first ten amendments often say the government “shall not infringe.” The courts sometimes decided that amendments constrain the government, so if no amendment, no constraint.
I’m sure Madison would roll over in his grave each time this happened (murmuring “That is not what I intended!”), especially since the tenth amendment explicitly says, “The powers not delegated by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it, to the States, are reserved to the States respectively.” To the dismay of anti-federalists, past and present, modern Supreme Court decisions recognize few limits to the scope of Congress’s enumerated powers. (See Reserved Powers of the States)
Civil War: also about states’ rights
With McCollugh and other court decisions, limited federal government met with a number of losses in the courtroom. With the Civil War, states’ rights advocates lost on the battlefield.
The southern states felt it was their right to withdraw from the federal republic if they so wanted (in order to preserve the institution of slavery), but Abraham Lincoln and the North disagreed. The North won the war, but to this day, many Americans still don’t accept the legitimacy of a strong central government.
Problem-solving: the national government keeps growing
The federal government, particularly Congress, often felt compelled in the years following the Civil War to address major problems facing American citizens, which resulted in an ever-increasing national government exerting more and more control over the affairs of the nation.
Here are particular periods which are especially vilified by proponents of limited government:
- The Progressive Era (mainly, Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson). The main objectives of the Progressive movement were eliminating problems caused by industrialization, urbanization, immigration, and corruption in government. Changes at the national levels included the income tax, direct election of Senators, Prohibition, women’s suffrage, the Interstate Commerce Commission, Federal Trade Commission, Food and Drug Administration, Clayton Antitrust Act, the Federal Reserve System, …
- The New Deal. In an attempt to bring the country out of the Great Depression, Franklin Delano Roosevelt launched many new federal programs, including Civilian Conservation Corps, Public Works Administration, Works Progress Administration, Emergency Banking Relief Act, Glass-Steagall Act (created the FDIC), Securities and Exchange Commission, Tennesse Valley Authority, Federal Housing Administration, Wagner Act (established collective bargaining and National Labor Relation Board), Fair Labor Standards Act, the Social Security Aministration, …
- The Sixties (mostly Lyndon Baines Johnson). Much new legislation and many new programs including the War on Poverty, Economic Opportunity Act, Job Corps, Volunteers in Service to America, Civil Rights Act, Voting Rights Act, Department of Housing and Urban Development, Department of Transportation, Fair Housing Act, Elementary and Secondary Education Act (doubled federal spending on education from $4 billion to $8 billion), Public Broadcasting Act, National Endowment for the Humanities, National Endowment for the Arts, Gun Control Act of 1968, Medicare, Medicaid, …
- Barack Obama. The big program launched during Obama’s administration was the Affordable Care Act, which added many regulations, mandated that everyone purchase health insurance, provided a national health insurance exchange for states that did not provide one themselves and a significant expansion of Medicaid.
Sometimes these expansions of the national government were challenged in the courts, but most of the programs continue to this day.
With each new government program, Conservatives cry out, “Please make it stop growing!” Many staunch Conservatives look at all of these government agencies and conclude that the Progressives have built a Frankenstein’s monster that will destroy individual property rights, bring the economy to its knees, remove the motivation to work, take away all freedoms and ultimately bankrupt the country. Seriously. With a $21 trillion national debt (and growing rapidly), it is difficult to deny that at least government spending vs. government revenue is seriously out of balance.
Before 2016: dampening factors
In years before 2016, various factors muted the amplitude of the inherent deep political divide that has stirred under the surface. Factors that lessened divisions in the past:
- Regional voting. From the Civil War to the Sixties, the South harbored memories of Republican carpetbaggers and voted solidly Democratic even though they had little in common with Northern Democrats. After the Civil Rights Act, the South transitioned to solid Republican.
- Limited media. In the television age before cable TV, there were only a few sources of mass media which tended towards a mainstream point of view to best serve the broadest possible market (and maximize advertising revenue).
- The Fairness Doctrine. The Fairness Doctrine was a policy of the United States Federal Communications Commission (FCC), introduced in 1949, that required the holders of broadcast licenses both to present controversial issues of public importance and to do so in a manner that was honest, equitable, and balanced. The policy was terminated by the Reagan administration in 1987; hence, Fox News and MSNBC.
2016: the divide shows itself in full force
With the election of 2016, we had a perfect storm for maximum diviseness. Not only were divisions brought to the surface, they were amplified by such factors as partisan media, fake news (including Russian-sponsored), social media echo chambers and the unique dividing capability of Donald Trump, who is either wonderful or horrible depending on your point of view. His supporters see him as a savior from the Progressives.
(I devoted a whole separate blog post to the divisiveness of the 2016 election: Our Extreme Partisan Divide: How It Happened, How To Fix. I explained how Liberals and Conservatives live in alternate realities in Why 89% of Republicans Trust Trump More Than CNN. Also, see the Pew Research report The Partisan Divide on Political Values Grows Even Wider. )
I will indulge in some amateur socio-psychology to speculate that, after 200+ years of Progressive problem-solving, growth of the federal government and loose interpretation of the Constitution, the collective ego among Conservatives feels a need to win and assert its will. This might have something to do with the passion among Trump’s base of supporters.
Constitutional originalists: the Conservatives strike back
Mostly under the radar of the American public is an organization of 60,000+ lawyers who wish to finally prevail in the 200-year struggle to interpret the Constitution strictly: the Federalist Society. Founded in 1982 with James Madison as their symbol, they want to reshape the Supreme Court and federal courts by filling the judiciary with their members, who believe that the Constitution should be interpreted using “originalism,” a doctrine stating that the basic meaning of the Constitution was set at the time the document was created at the end of the 18th century.
The Federalist Society has been hugely successful. Three of our current nine Supreme Court Justices are members: Samuel Alito, Clarence Thomas and Neil Gorsuch. President Trump is filling Federal District Court vacancies using Federalist Society recommendations. Trump has already nominated scores of judges. The Democrats are stalling confirmations using every possible means.
It is likely that many new decisions from Federalist Society judges will be much less lenient than prior judges in the trade-off between doing what is necessary to address today’s problems versus how they believe James Madison would have viewed things in 1787. Also, it is possible that some long-standing legal precedents could be overturned.
Originalism has already had a major impact with the 2008 Supreme Court decision (231 years after the Constitutional Convention) that the Second Amendment guaranteed all Americans the right to bear arms, not just state militia. In the 5-4 majority decision, Antonin Scalia used originalist legal arguments. Just today (2017-10-04) we hear of Federalist Society member Gorsuch using originalist arguments in reviewing a Supreme Court case on gerrymandering.
Note that there is a strong correlation between lenient judges and Progressive political views, and similarly between originalist judges and Conservative political views.
Therefore, the ideological war continues 240 years after the Constitutional Convention.
Conclusion: reasons for hope
Is all hope lost? Are the divisions so deep that there is no hope for unity, consensus and compromise? Are we headed to some modern version of a second American civil war, where partisan politics escalates into total war between Progressives and Conservatives intent to forever destroy each other’s legitimacy forever, where the winning side installs a strongman (like Turkey’s Erdogan) who slowly and systematically takes censorship control of the media and Internet, purges the government of opposition, rigs future elections and ultimately installs a partial version of a police state – all justified by the perceived evil of the other side?
I certainly hope not and will do everything I can to prevent such an eventuality. I will fight for a democracy that encourages and respects different points of view, honors freedom and accepts the results of fair and open elections.
Reasons for hope:
- Divisiveness fatigue and/or backlash. Perhaps a large number of Americans will see that divisiveness is a major problem in and of itself and will take their attitudes to the voting booth.
- Rise of the moderates. Perhaps the more reasonable centrist segments of the political spectrum will find a way to build political strength. (Less gerrymandering would help here.)
- Reduction in fake news. Perhaps Facebook and other companies will find some success in their efforts to combat the amplifying effects of purposeful fake news.
- United by adversity. People have the luxury to be divisive when times are good. Natural disasters (e.g., hurricanes and earthquakes) or economic downturn might put the focus on survival issues rather than spewing political hatred on social media. (Not exactly a totally hopeful scenario.)
- Young people save the world. Maybe as the Millennials enter their thirties and start raising families, they will lift their heads from their cellphones and say, “(expletive) we’ve got to clean up this mess!” The recent March for Our Lives, instigated by Florida high school students, promises increased activism by the generation just entering adulthood.
About the author
Jon Ferraiolo is the author of Holy War for True Democracy and the founder of the nonpartisan nonprofit Democracy Guardians. He has advanced ALS which has resulted in near-paralysis of his arms and hands. As a result, he wrote this article, authored the book and launched the nonprofit using only his eyes.