The primary lesson I learned from the presidential election is that the United States is no longer a valid construct. We are not united and will never be united again.
If there is one truism in life, it’s that you can’t resolve a value conflict. The best you can hope for in a value conflict is to respect the other person’s values and agree to leave each other alone.
That’s not possible in the political climate of the United States of America and it’s not going to change. There are two distinct sides and both are trying to convince the other that their values are right and the other’s values are wrong. That doesn’t work. Just ask the Arabs and the Israelis.
The cause of the division is simple: the introduction of religion into politics. Although most people will blame Reagan for this, it was Jimmy Carter who first made religion a campaign issue with his “born again” proclamation.
Since that time the Religious Right has become more and more extreme, coloring every issue with their paranoia about sex and contradictory beliefs about the sanctity of life (contradictory because it only applies to babies, not adults). In 2012, they expanded their opposition to abortion to opposition to contraception, a move that revealed what was really behind the “pro-life” movement. They’re terrified of sex and believe that all women bear Eve’s curse: the instinct to manipulate and seduce men. Therefore, women must be controlled and their sexual behavior limited to pleasureless reproduction.
If this sounds like something out of A Handmaid’s Tale, it is.
As recently as 1960, the separation of church and state was apparently an accepted truism. John F. Kennedy had to defend himself against charges that he would take orders from Rome. What happened to change things was the cultural revolution of the 1960’s. The Pill gave women more sexual freedom. The changes in civil rights law began the process of bringing minorities into the mainstream. The combination of free women and vocal minorities scared the hell out of the more conservative white people, whose fear turned into a cause when the Supreme Court, bringing the separation of church and state to the local level, banned school prayer.
Jimmy Carter then legitimized the combination of religion and politics, and Reagan and the conservatives exploited the hell out of it. We began to hear people tell us that America is a Christian nation and that we should have policies based more on religious principles than democratic principles. Ironically, the conservatives tried to sell themselves as defenders of The Constitution, a document that states very clearly that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof ….” and specifies that “no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States.” Groups like The Christian Coalition violated that restriction in every campaign cycle, endorsing only those candidates who met their standards of Christianity.
Despite Romney’s adherence to the Mormon faith, his shape-shifting abilities made him acceptable to the right, if not particularly desirable. He then sealed the deal by nominating the religious extremist Paul Ryan, whose alleged intellectual credentials (extraordinarily biased towards an inflexible economic dogma) gave some comfort to the economic conservatives. The right-leaning electorate, terrified by the very existence of an African-American president who many believed was neither Christian nor American, put all their fear-driven hopes into this odd couple.
The ironic truth is that Barack Obama was the only Protestant among the four major candidates.
The reaction of the right to Obama’s surprisingly clear victory has been to proclaim the decision a disaster, to scream incoherently that the country is going to hell and to buy more guns. They believe they are still right; the rest of the country, who they believe consists largely of people who want handouts from the government and irresponsible sex, has gone mad. They have no interest in letting bygones be bygones or compromising. The concept of uniting behind the President once a campaign is over makes no sense to them. The battle must continue.
In 1964, the conservative Barry Goldwater scolded a crowd at a campaign rally for booing his opponent, President Johnson. He told them that whatever their beliefs, the office demanded respect. That concept seems as dated as Leave It to Beaver. The hard right has never respected anyone who disagrees with them, much less an African-American with an un-American name.
The majority of people on the right believe they are on a religious crusade to save America from sin and deficits. The keyword here is “crusade,” a word that George Bush let slip when describing the war on terror. Religion has been the most common cause of war since time began, for a very simple reason: you can’t resolve a value conflict. Those who are evil must be destroyed, despite the evidence of history that one side has never been fully able to eradicate the other (Rome came closest in Carthage, but people must have slipped out of town before the place was leveled). You can’t reason with anyone who is certain that they hold the truth.
Interestingly enough, most liberals would love to limit government spending if you could find a way to do without hurting those who cannot help themselves. Americans love money and they want to keep as much as they can. With genuine dialogue and compromise, we could fix the deficit, Social Security, Medicare and all these seemingly insurmountable problems in a few months. The problem is that the issues have been contaminated with Puritan values of the virtues of thrift, hard work and obedience to God, and that turns every disagreement into a jihad.
I am more concerned that if we do not divide the country according to shared values, we will make no progress on our problems and that violence will become an even more legitimate option for resolving our differences. The increase in gun sales after the election was an astonishing and frightening response to the outcome.
How would you split the place up? Start with the electoral map. The South, The Great Plains and The Mountain States form one nation; the Northeast, Upper Midwest and West Coast form another (or two). You would have to make some adjustments to state boundaries (combine Northern Virginia with the District of Columbia) or split some states into smaller chunks. For states that are odd fits with the surrounding geography (Arizona) or just plain odd (Florida), let the people decide.
The first reaction of many Americans to this idea is likely to be selfish, particularly if they find themselves in a new nation whose political leanings are not to their liking. “Hey, I’ve lived here all my life. Why should I have to move somewhere else?”
The answer is simple. Why would you want to live in a place that tramples on your values?