Divided America—and How It Heals


Staid old Gallup knows how to get attention. Its Presidential Job Approval Center recently announced a new report with the provocative title: U.S. Muslims Most Approving of Obama, Mormons Least. The full results of this extraordinarily large sample of 88,000 interviews showed an even more dramatic division. Majorities of Muslims (72 percent), other non-Christians (59 percent), Jews (55 percent) and atheists (54 percent) supporting President Obama faced Catholics (51 percent), Protestants (58 percent) and Mormons (78 percent) opposing him.

It looks like the basis for a religious war. Then it gets even bleaker.

Only 34 percent of weekly church attendees and married persons supported Mr. Obama, with majorities of the unchurched and single women approving the job he was doing as President. The division becomes even more dramatic when one looks at race, with African Americans supporting him by 82 percent and Hispanics by 53 percent, and whites by only 30 percent.

Another very large poll of 10,000 by the Pew Research Center, analyzed in its Political Polarization in the American Public, registers an even deeper division by looking where people live and how that is related to what they think. Liberals told the pollsters that in choosing a place to live, they prefer a place with ethnic and racial diversity. Substantial majorities of liberals even prefer a place where houses are smaller and stores are near. Taking only the most liberal Americans, three-fourths say proximity to art museums and theaters is important in deciding where to live. Large percentages of conservatives prefer to live where houses are larger and facilities are further away. Conservative majorities say that living near people who share their religious faith is an important feature in deciding where to purchase a home. Liberals and conservatives alike say it is important to live where people share their political views.

Looking at the two major political parties specifically, 20 years ago one quarter of Republicans were more liberal than the median Democrat and a fifth of Democrats were more conservative than the average Republican. Today, the typical Republican is more conservative than 94 percent of Democrats and the typical Democrat is more liberal than 92 percent of Republicans.

Most Americans are not very ideological and “remain on the edges of the political playing field” but the more ideological “make their voices heard through greater participation in every stage of the political process.” To them, beliefs count: 30 percent of consistent conservatives and 23 percent of consistent liberals say they would be unhappy if a family member married someone who voted with the other party. Half of all Americans and 73 percent of conservatives would be unhappy if a family member married someone who did not believe in God.

The country is divided but what journalist Ben Domenech calls the “governing cartel” in politics and the media demands a single national solution to every problem. Barack Obama aimed at a “transformational” program like Franklin Roosevelt’s. But the country is much more divided today, and on deeper matters. And few think government bureaucracy works anymore. In his new book Citizenville, the former Democratic mayor of San Francisco and now Lieutenant Governor of California Gavin Newsom argues that “top-down, bureaucratic, hierarchical government [is] choking our democracy.” He adds: “We need to allow people to bypass government . . . to look to themselves for solving problems rather than asking the government to do things for them.”

Notwithstanding the partisan differences just described, something is going on today even among Democrats.

Having one solution for healthcare, the environment, education, job-creation and the rest just does not work given the complex technology of modern times, Newsome argues, sounding much like the free-market economist F.A. Hayek. Of course, Newsome is correctly liberal on social policy but recognizing differences on those policies is even more critical since the Gallup and Pew data demonstrate that people are even more divided over moral issues. One party or the other can force economic and social changes for a while, but at the expense of further fragmentation of our divided citizenry.

From Woodrow Wilson’s Congressional Government in 1885, to James MacGregor Burns’ Deadlock of Democracy in 1963, to Thomas E. Mann’s It’s Even Worse than It Looks today, we see that Progressives put at the top of their priorities ending government “deadlock” and adopting a consensus policy. As Wilson taught intellectuals, the reason Progressivism was frustrated here more than in Europe was the American government’s separation of powers. The solution was to grant more rational power to the executive and his bureaucratic experts. A century later, with a progressive president forcing through a rewrite of one-sixth of the economy without legislators being able to read the health bill beforehand, and ruling, as he says, with “pen and phone” by Executive Order, not only has nirvana still not arrived, the President’s popularity has sunk to historic lows and the nation is more polarized than ever.

The Founders actually had the solution. There is a reason for the current deadlock. The Constitution set forth that the national government would only do a few things, as outlined in Article I, Section 8 and the Tenth Amendment, and that the states and people do the rest. The fact that the nation is divided but that folks with different views tend to congregate together demonstrates the continuing relevance of the Founders’ construction. The Progressives from Wilson to today had it completely backwards. Rather than overriding the Constitutional separation of powers, the solution is to respect them by devolving programs and responsibility to the lowest levels, the federalist ones Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America recognized as the secret to our success.

Americans have been far ahead of their elected leaders in finding ways around progressive centralization, partially by living near folks who agree with them. The politicians merely need to follow the Constitution and let people govern themselves locally with their neighbors to escape the failure of forced progressive uniformity.

Reader Discussion

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on August 08, 2014 at 10:29:06 am

"One party or the other can force economic and social changes for a while, but at the expense of further fragmentation of our divided citizenry."

I am not so certain that this is true in that the effects of certain congressional / Legislative action once implemented are exceedingly difficult to undo - and it may very well be that the difficulty is directly attributable to the separation of powers. Unless, a Party gains control of both the Legislative branches and the Executive AND has a supermajority, it cannot undo the bad policy implementations of the previous administration. Compounding the difficulty is the peoples "acclimation" to the effects of these policy decisions.

So while it is beneficial in preventing the total transformation of the country it is a great impediment to undoing wrongheaded policy.

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Image of gabe
on August 08, 2014 at 15:51:46 pm

In complete abandonment of modesty:

Refer to the initial comment under the adjoining essay "Impoverished Pontifications Part II."

Note how the statistics and surveys cited by Mr. Devine dovetail with the "defensive" conditions described in that comment..

In connection with both essays the references to the effects of "markets" as events and conditions of individual interchanges are dependent upon the degree to which those markets are free. Free markets are those in which the transactions and interactions are conducted solely in accordance with the interests of the individual participants. But, as has been noted elsewhere, markets are intruded upon by nonparticipants for objectives other than those of the individual participants. The freedom of the individuals in the markets is thus constrained.

We are currently observing the continuation of efforts through the requirements, inter alia, of "affordable" housing, required ethnic and economic mixing (regardless of the underlying motivations of the individuals involved) in housing and other forms of developments; all tied to designing a desired social order, without examination or validation of the source and determination of that desire in terms of the freedom of the individuals it impacts.

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Image of R Richard Schweitzer
R Richard Schweitzer
on August 08, 2014 at 17:56:35 pm

Richard's comments bring to mind a comment I was going to make earlier.

Mr. Devine repeats the assertion of many on the left that they prefer the urban environment because they prefer the diversity of the city. It is a curious form of diversity when the preponderance of its residents are upper-income, upscale in outlook, overwhelmingly white, college educated professionals leaning heavily toward Demo-Progressive politics and living in overpriced condos What diversity one encounters in the urban centers is more likely to be confined to a small racial or ethnic section which the elite will from time to time sojourn to sample the local fare.

Yet, in many suburban areas (such as my little lakeside community) one finds a broad mix of incomes, races, ethnicities and political outlooks living in a wide variety of homes. One may find the owner of a 1935 Duesenberg living alongside an immigrant family laboring as landscapers / handymen. The diversity is both real and voluntary - yet not EXALTED as a badge of moral goodness unlike our urban brethren.

And yet, as Richard rightly points out the State, via these same elite and diversity propounding professional class seeks to interpose themselves between the market and the individual / community and has deemed this area (and many like areas) to be "urban density." I suppose we will now have to both exalt and lament the lost diversity which will result from this interposition by the political class - not to mention the loss of property values.

Ah, the sheer joys of living under such a beneficent and wise class!!!!

Perhaps, if I should walk the neighborhood streets with my grandfathers lupara they would accept the diversity of our neighborhood.

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Image of gabe
on August 10, 2014 at 14:47:30 pm

"The Founders actually had the solution." Yes, completely right. There are those who say, "Why the Founders?" My answer is not, "Because they were the Founders," but "Because they were right. How did they get that way? By understanding the antecedents in social and national developments, and had a concept how to rearrange them for peace, prosperity and a sustainable society."

For those who the proceed to say, "But the Founders were racists..." etc. ... I say that some were even opposed to that, and beyond that, as wise as a person is, s/he's not immune to every bit of bad science or culture, or even a fairly serious corruption or five. When you're right, you're right, even if on other things you're a moron.

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Image of kldimond
on August 20, 2014 at 07:01:00 am

[…] In a thought-provoking piece on the subject published by the Library of Law and Liberty, Donald Devi… […]

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Image of Is America too divided to stand?
Is America too divided to stand?

Law & Liberty welcomes civil and lively discussion of its articles. Abusive comments will not be tolerated. We reserve the right to delete comments - or ban users - without notification or explanation.