Dennis Miller—yes, that Dennis Miller—tweeted recently (with only four characters to spare within Twitter’s 140-character limit): “I believe that pre Civil War the two disparate factions in this country probably weren’t much more rancorously polarized than we are now.”
I love Dennis Miller and think his political acumen is pretty good, but I’m not sure this is a sound judgment. As nasty as things can be on Capitol Hill today, no one has yet whipped out a cane and beat a senator or representative to a bloody pulp, though I think we’d do well to keep a wary eye on Al Franken. No one is seriously talking about dismembering the country—forcibly or otherwise; the occasional mutterings about secession, from the Left in Vermont under George W. Bush, and from the Right in Texas under Obama, aren’t serious. Though if you really want to stoke the fires of civil discord and rebellion, propose a cultural exchange law compelling Texans to eat Ben & Jerry’s ice cream, and Vermonters to wear ten-gallon hats and eat medium-rare hamburger on white bread.
However you calibrate the political rancor of our time as compared to the Civil War era, the most obvious distinction is that the divisions of that era were largely sectional, which is why a civil war of the kind we had—with fixed armies from contiguous territory—was possible. It’s hard to imagine Arizona and Nevada going to war against California for the sin of stealing too much Colorado River water and allowing Indian casinos to undermine the Vegas strip, or Utah going to war against Colorado for legalizing gay marriage.
But that doesn’t mean the problem of political rancor today is insubstantial. One reason our sectional division finally lurched to civil war in the 1850s was the complete nationalization of the slavery issue because of Dred Scott, whose principle, as Lincoln perceived and argued, militated for the legalization of slavery in all states. While the previous confinement of slavery to the South was unstable (because the South wanted to expand its peculiar institution), it held out the prospect that it could be placed in the course of ultimate extinction through gradual means.
Hypothesis: the nationalization of more and more issues once left to the state and local level is aggravating our divisions today in a similar way. While we won’t ever have a shooting civil war because it isn’t sectional, the political civil war will intensify with increased centralization. Think of how a single issue—abortion—has warped judicial confirmations because it was nationalized by judicial fiat. Now try this thought experiment: think of what future judicial confirmations will be like if the Supreme Court nationalizes gay marriage in the same way. A second dimension is the bureaucratization of so much of American life, which places more and more of our law—and our rulers (regulators)—beyond the practical reach of democratic majorities. Bureaucratic fiat is just as destructive of democratic self-rule as judicial fiat.
Problem is, this entire problem is hard to analyze in 140 character bursts. Though I’m thinking of doing a commentary on Tocqueville on Twitter, just to see if a new literary form can work.