Federalism Writ Large
For most of our nation’s history, there was a cultural consensus of sorts. It was Christian, with Episcopalians at the top of the pecking order and Catholics off in their own corner. Our Shining City on the Hill was the apex of the progress of Western Civilization, with a thread running from the public square in Athens thru Pax Romana, the Magna Carta and our Constitution. Military service was revered (even by most of those who dodged the draft). The core unit of social organization was the family, consisting of a male breadwinner, a female nurturer and two or more children. Private enterprise was an honorable way to make a living. There were certainly dissenters from this orthodoxy. There were those who mouthed the values, but lived otherwise. However, most public figures at least paid lip service to that value system.
All that changed in the late 60s. Women were liberated. Marriage and child bearing were optional (and sub-optimal). Homosexuals came out of the closet. Military service was scorned. Graduation speakers told kids to toil in the non-profit or public sector. The City on the Hill was an imperialist ogre, whose culture was no better, maybe worse, that other cultures we should study in the new field of World History (no more BC and AD for us).
We did not, however, move to a new consensus. Not everybody bought the new orthodoxy. We got a culture war instead. Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, and the Bush clan won the presidency in the New Age. On one side, there are Rednecks (the basket of Deplorables). The other side is the Elite (see David Brooks’ Bobos in Paradise), an aristocracy of the credentialed and right thinking.
I think the divide is neatly summed up in a short paragraph in Hillbilly Elegy. That book stayed on the best seller list for a long time because the Elite is desperately trying to figure out how Donald Trump got elected. It’s engaged in an anthropological investigation of flyover country. The book is the diary of a guy who moved from one camp to the other. He explains that the Elite respects those who can say and write. Rednecks respect those who can do things — gut a dear, repair a chainsaw, change a tire.
My suggested solution for a truce in the culture war is that we have a bit of cultural federalism. The problem is not differing views on values; it’s the effort by the Elite to impose their values on the Rednecks. To some extent, Rednecks would like to impose their views on the Elite, but they have mostly given up that fight; they are fighting a rearguard action to survive. If we could agree on a few core values — rule of law, validity of elections, equality of opportunity — and let the rest go, we might have a more productive polity. Let California be California and Texas be Texas. Even Texas is not monolithic. I used to run property in Austin and San Antonio. The short drive between the two crossed a wide cultural river. To say nothing of El Paso, the capital of the economic nation of TexMex. Even in single metropolitan areas, there are wide cultural divides. Laguna Beach and Irwindale have scarcely anything in common, from a cultural prospective. If I am in SoCal, I’ll shop for second rate art in Laguna and auto repair in Irwindale.
The Elite have invented a new virtue . . . DIVERSITY. I think it is new, because I failed to notice it on the tablets that Moses brought down from the mountain, or, for that matter, in the tenets of any other major religion on earth. If we’re going to embrace diversity as a virtue, let’s have real diversity, not people of different skin color and sexual orientation thinking the same correct thoughts. If we could learn to tolerate real diversity; if we could have some respect for views other than our own; if we could just let people with other views live the life they want to live without mandating their behavior, we would be better off. I propose a value to accompany diversity . . . TOLERANCE. Live and let live.
It is probably true that both camps have elements that are valuable. Given a sufficient level of tolerance, and a long enough period of truce, we might even be able to develop a new consensus that combined the best features of both.