Thursday, July 06, 2006

Irrepressible Conflict?

I've been thinking about this Billmon post and about the contentious, culturally driven politics of our times. I read Billmon's post on the same day my NYT ran this article, and the same day Kevin Drum posted this.

I think the three are related but the Billmon post deserves the most analysis so I'll confine most of my comments to it.

First, I think Billmon is right to portray the country's inner, party-framed conflict as one between traditionalism and modernism, a point the
Rogue Progressive made some time ago. Moreover, Billmon is surely correct that this divide has a lot to do with the forces of globalization, a point recently made by David Brooks. And unfortunately, I share Billmon's angst about this divide, doubt the country can be brought together, and likewise fear that this will ultimately lead to more violent conflicts, as each side of the cultural divide perceives its opponents as malignantly motivated and authoritatively illegitimate. The frequent and hysterical use of eliminiationist rhetoric by many prominent conservatives only heightens this apprehension. Finally, the reality that is our inter-connected world makes it all the more likely that our awareness of and repulsion towards our ideological opponents will only increase, making the harsh divide even more bitter, potentially sowing the seeds of a future, violent upheaval. Billmon suggests a coming conflict could be a sudden and as violent as the Civil War, a point he concedes sounds like hyperbole, but which is nonetheless both as realistic and as unfathonable to us today as the coming of the Civil War was to the people of the North and South in 1860-1861.

So what is the solution, if any? The short version I think is that the coming years will see a devolution of power or at least a devolution of authority and scope from the national level to the state level; a denationalization of issues if you will. A reversion back to older time federalism.

Consider welfare (reform). The issue of welfare has pretty much dropped off the political agenda, primarily because the 1996 "reform" act ended the federal entitlement and shifted the control over it from the national government to the states. With a lower level of federal funding but greater discretion, states responded by establishing eligibility deadlines and enforcing work requirements. Politically the result of this policy shift has been a less contentious national debate about welfare policy.

A similar pattern appears to be occuring in abortion policy. The elevation of two, presumably anti-choice Supreme Court Justices in Bush's second term encouraged first South Dakota and more recently, Louisiana to initiate abortion prohibition legislation. If Roe v. Wade is overturned, as I suspect it eventually will be, states will again have authority to restrict abortion. What the effect of this will be nationally is harder to project than the case of welfare. Some conservatives will no doubt press for national legislation and even continue their efforts to enact an anti-abortion amendment to the Constitution. But it's at least conceivable that the devolution of abortion policy to the state level could minimize the issue's national scope. For a critical view of the likely outcomes to occur under a state-centered abortion policy regime, Lawyers, Guns and Money has a number of informative and compelling posts on the subject.

Additionally, the overturning of the ban on corporate, coerced school prayer would turn another heated issue back to the states and local level. The devolution of school prayer and other
"establishment clause" issues would likely reduce--although probably not eliminate--the conflict over church and state issues from a national perspective.

Naturally, the rejection of national liberal values pertaining to abortion, church and state issues, and other moral and rights-based issues would be a deeply disturbing outcome for many liberal activists, religious minorities and women (and for the writer of this blog).

But, such changes might--might--pave the way for a less contentious national politics; at the very least, it would likely lead to a more stabile national political regime, albeit diverting some of that conflict to the state and local levels.

The other alternative is that the forces that have led to the liberalization of the country, from the establishment of the Constitution itself, to the ending of slavery, the passing of consumer and worker safety legislation and oversight, the enactment of the New Deal and Great Society programs, and the judicial liberalizations themselves will ultimately, eventually lead to a greater liberalization and tolerance across the country.

And what exactly are those forces? One of them is, ironically, the spread of vastly complex, interdependent market economies. If societies are largely the product of the factors of production--the society's economic system--as Marx taught, there are certain implications stemming from a market based economy. One of these is the increased diversity of production and differentiation of labor. Market economy capitalism, in its fullest, theoretical sense, assumes (among other things) perfect competition, a condition that itself assumes multiple and varied producers and an amoral pricing and distributive system. As Kevin Drum alludes to, this type of economic system, particularly if as Marx assumed economic systems dictated social relations and institutional development, is not conducive to conservatism, in either its historic or current day manifestation. If the country, and the world, continue to grow more interconnected through its material exchanges, and if this global economic system remains stable, the traditionalist's world of superstition and exclusiveness (and exceptionalism) will gradually whither. If, however, globalization as an economic trend falters or collapses completely, traditionalism will no doubt gain an extra life and continue in duration.

As informative and potentially determinative as all this may be, I suspect there's more to this story than economics. Billmon's post made me try to understand the current state of affairs from a more historical perspective of Constitutional development and expanding notions of citizenship.


In the beginning, the Constitution identified and recognized the basic rights of the people (primarily the rights and prerogatives of white males) and set up a system of balancing institutions designed to ensure it would not be easy to set aside those rights, particularly where it concerned property rights. In addition were rights that presumably applied to the people as a whole, such as those related to the freedom to assemble and the freedom of the press. Paradoxically, the Constitution was also designed to bind the states more firmly together for the purposes of national defense and commercial standardization. But even though the Declaration of Independence a decade earlier had offered a revolutionary notion of human rights and national citizenship, the national government in its early days was concerned mostly with the country's national defenses, its geographical expansion and its economic development. While certain ideas about the rights of man were held by a large class of the country's leaders, if not its population, the national government lacked the resources and the interest to regulate the state governments and local communities, ensuring matters of welfare, crime and religion were left with state and local leaders, and which no doubt varied from state to state. And with a financially and constitutionally minimal federal government, and mostly agricultural economy of self-contained communities, there was little potential or interest in specifying or safeguarding national rights for the country's many varied classes of people.

The eventual "irrepressible conflict" between the slave South and industrial North changed this dynamic, however. It's important to recognize that prior to the outbreak of war, most people in the south probably had no intention of requiring slavery in the North, and most people in the North, particularly its elites, had no wish to interfere with slavery in the South. Race relations and slavery was a sectional issue, not a national issue. But the North and South could not agree on how slavery would be regulated or allowed in the rapidly expanding territories and war resulted. The war in turn resulted in the end of slavery everywhere and the passing of important Constitutional amendments that in essense expanded the notion of citizenship and more widely defined and applied the rights held by the nation's people. As important as these changes were, however, the North lacked the moral imperative, the financial wherewithall and the political will to enforce those rights, and not long after the Civil War, the national definition of citizenship enshrined in the new Amendments was relegated to the trash heap, particularly in the South. And the sectional and local authority over culture and individual rights was reinstated.

At the same time, the continuing industrial revolution and expansion put a spotlight on the relationship between labor and capital, ensuring that federal attention would have to be paid to the class of workers. General prosperity through the 1920's, and the political power gained by corporate dollars helped to stave off the enlargement of citizenship that the Declaration of Independence, Civil War, 13th-15th Amendments, and labor unrest had forecast. But the Great Depression made possible the nationalization of previously local economic responsibilities. With the New Deal the country's elite began to more seriously respond to the Constitution's call to ensure the country's overall and universal welfare. The country's international obligations stemming from World War II and the Cold War, meanwhile, required that the rights it was seeking to defend abroad were also ensured at home. In this early sense of globalization, America responded fitfully but ultimately forcefully to the problem of Civil Rights.

Among the earliest and most fruitful avenues of change on Civil Rights was provided by the federal courts, long thought and in practice the most conservative and undemocratic of the federal branches of government. The principle of Judicial Review as espoused by John Marshall in the country's first decade of existence, was applied by a newly progressive court in response to challenges by social activists and minority populations both religious and racial to fight against local and state legislation that hindered their freedom.

By the 1960's and the Warren Court, the notion of national citizenship had increased dramatically. Minority and disenfranchised citizens discovered the convoluted federal system of multiple veto points could be engaged in to their favor. But the expansion of citizenship, largely through the judicial branch of government, that benefitted religious and racial minorities in turn incited conservative opponents of this redefined sense of national citizenship who wished to maintain the sovereignty of local and state authorities. Simply put, while certain global and economic changes had made the country's economy and way of life more inter-dependent, not everyone shared the new liberal consensus of individual rights and political change. Economic changes had not been fully followed by a corresponding political change in the mood of the public and its elected, legislative representatives.

This brings us to today, where court decisions (in response to plaintiffs) have resulted in what were once local issues becoming both national and more contentious. The court system which once was seen as lagging seriously behind the legislative and executive branches in terms of political innovativeness suddenly lept ahead in the 1950's and 1960's.

For many of the nation's political elite, especially its clerical leaders and their attentive followers, these liberalizing court decisions expanding the definition and protection of national citizenship were seriously disempowering. This disempowerment has been turned into a powerful tool of resentment, as priests, clerics, and talk show hosts appeal to those believed to be aggrieved (or those elites believe could be convinced of the injury done them by "judicial activists"). The power of this resentment has been greatly aided of late by the expansion of cable TV and the concentration of the nation's corporate media generally.

And this resentment is also the basis of the political movement, represented by the Republican Party, that at least since 1964 has helped elect Republican presidents and in 1994, a Republican Congress. The result has been a gradual shift in the politics of the court system and a retrenchment of national citizenship as Federal Society judges appointed by Republican executives begin the process of turning back the clock and devolving national issues back to the states (the recent over-turning of Texas' sodomy law appears to be either an anomaly to this retrenchment or a sign that the denationalization of policy has very limited potential, driven as it is by economic and cultural changes beyond the scope of the authoritarian right's ability to control).

At the same time, conservatism itself has changed. Perhaps because of the global and economic changes that have driven the country's liberalization, many of today's conservatives aren't and won't be content to denationalize the country's contentious culture wedge issues. Where once conservatives were largely content to confine their authoritarian tendencies (such as slavery and segregation) to the local stage, their growth in power, and their fear of enemies "foreign and domestic" have helped create a more nationalistic and ideological movement. Consider the NYT article I linked to above that contained this quote from a Tennessee mega-church, African-American pastor:

The statue, inspired by a Memphis church that has three giant crosses, strikes him as "a creative means of just really letting people know that God is the foundation of our nation," he said.

Mr. Williams has written several books and pamphlets analyzing a variety of matters, among them patriotism and the original intent of the founding fathers.

In "The Meaning of the Statue of Liberation Through Christ: Reconnecting Patriotism With Christianity," he explains that the teardrop on his Lady is God's response to what he calls the nation's ills, including legalized abortion, a lack of prayer in schools and the country's "promotion of expressions of New Age, Wicca, secularism and humanism."

In another book, he said Hurricane Katrina was retribution for New Orleans's embrace of sin.

Mr. Williams said his statue's essential point was that Christianity should be the guiding ethos of the nation. But because the church he leads is predominantly black, as is he, there is an added dimension to the message.


So what can we conclude if anything from all this? As I noted above, I suspect that Roe v. Wade and some of the more unpopular establishment clause court decisions will be undone by future, and maybe even the present, Supreme Court. While this will no doubt be the cause of much anguish on the part of the left, and much celebration on the part of the right, two consequences of such a judicial turn to the right might result. The first is a change in the country's national politics to one in which international and economic issues replace the more divisive cultural issues of the current era. The second is that the continued pace of globalization and modernity may result in the isolation of the more regressive states that respond to the new court decisions with repressive legislation. Free markets tend to promote and require both flexibility as well as standardization. States excluded to various degrees from the progress shared by more liberal states may find their regressive social policies are holding them back or at the very least are embarassing.

Of course other less favorable developments could also occur. The conservative movement would take or keep its national focus and attempt to enforce religious and culture mores on the country. Or the repressive changes instituted within states could seriously undermine the gains in civil rights and individual freedom generated from the work of over a century of activism and progress. I'm aware that the argument I'm making is not alltogether dissimilar from the argument of those who minimize the importance of the Civil War and later the Civil Rights movements' impact on political change, arguing that economic necessity would have sooner or later forced the ending of slavery and segregation. Those are not arguments I'm in agreement with and if it were up to me, Roe v. Wade and the ban on coerced school prayer would be allowed to stand. The courts, in response to the disenfranchized, became the engine of political change and progress that perhaps decades or more of congresses and legislatures would not have accomplished.

But the current climate has made Democratic progress difficult. On the one hand, I fear the system may break completely, resulting in a significant upheaval, if the current cultural divide continues. On the other hand, a devolution of policy in the cultural realm may allow the party a greater room to maneuver at the federal level while still allowing most Americans the full range of citizenship the last century has made possible. It may also provide a highly instructive study in the contrast between liberal and repressive societies which the world at large should be an example but which unfortunately for many people is not yet.

1 comment:

Billmon said...

"I suspect that Roe v. Wade and some of the more unpopular establishment clause court decisions will be undone by future, and maybe even the present, Supreme Court . . . two consequences of such a judicial turn to the right might result. The first is a change in the country's national politics to one in which international and economic issues replace the more divisive cultural issues of the current era."

As a practical matter, the problem with this argument is that the Republican Party NEEDS the culture war to hold together its increasingly awkward coalition. What's more, the fundamentalist movement has no respect whatsoever for constitutional principles -- including "state's rights" -- if they stand in the way of God's will as interpreted by Jerry Falwell and James Dobson. The idea of gays getting married in Massachusetts is just as much an abomination to them as gays getting hitched in Mississippi, and they aren't likely to declare a truce just because they've attained their immediate legal objectives at the national level.

This creates a powerful incentive for social conservatism to stay on the offensive, and to use the federal machinery to impose their values and morality on the entire country if they can. After Roe will come the Human Life Amendment, and after that . . . In the end, the GOP and those corporate elites who are committed to the party may have little choice but to go along. The alternative is to split the conservatice coalition and lose control of the federal machine, as the did in '92.

Remember Lincoln's words: A House divided against itself cannot stand. To us, that means avoiding conflict. To the Christian Right as well as the advocates of the one-party Republican state, it means attaining dominion from sea to shining sea.

If there is hope, and I think there still is, it's in the non-fundamentalist, non-movement conservative Republicans and (ironically) the corporate elites, who could start bailing from the GOP in larger numbers if the lunacy goes too far. At least I hope so. But I wouldn't count on federalism to come to the rescue. The conflict may not be irrepressible, but I think it's going to take more than a few opinions from Scalia and company to put it out.