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My Turn: Sharp divisions come with the territory in America

Posted: Thursday, December 02, 2004

There is a remedial class in the history of American democracy being scheduled for this winter. Attendance is encouraged for all those who were outraged or grief-stricken at the presidency of Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, Carter, Reagan, Bush, Clinton, or Bush (pick one or more). This will not be a critique of the First Amendment right to free speech or the benefits of well-considered dissent. There will be no focus on truth, trust, or tyranny. Instead the class will consider some of the dilemmas that have faced American governance since the well-documented intrigue and fighting over national unification in the late 1700s. It will also look at the pendulum of public opinion and how its swing is an essential gyro-like stabilizer for the compass of American progress.

For us to imagine that we do not deserve to be so sharply divided along political party fault lines is to ignore the longest-lasting open wound in American history - the battle between Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton. It is the battle between republicanism and federalism, the distrust of educated monarchy and central government versus the distrust of a less-educated public and regional governments. It continues today as a powerful shaper of political platforms and cultural divisions.

Colonial America agreed to a federation almost solely to fight against England's control of commerce. That was the extent of their unity. When the war was over there were already well-established resentments about the power of heavily populated and wealthy states to control the country's commerce and determine the nature of federal government. Not wanting to give up regional self-determination but believing in the correctness of majority rule for some aspects of federal government, constitutional framers adopted the Great Compromise. It gave us a House of Representatives oriented to population and a Senate oriented to state's rights. This construction guarantees that the democratic principle of majority rule on a federal level is fairly challenged by diversity arising from majority rule at the state level.

Divisions between people are highlighted when federal government gets active in the gray zone of state's rights. The natural evolutionary process that allows people and states to progress in harmony can only absorb so much federal intervention without backlash. By the same token states must show progress in social and commerce institutions or the federation is weakened. From a governance viewpoint our greater problem is not the political party in charge, but when federal power is out of balance with the social evolution of regional America. It forces severe partisanship into the fragile fraternity of a people who start thinking about tyranny right after their first spanking.

The idea of a unified country willing to exchange local self-determination for enlightened federal rule is a myth that evaporates in the red and blue map of Electoral College voting. People want personal freedom but they tend to live and mingle amongst like-minded folks. Diversity is no more important than predictability in a stable society, and successful government cannot favor one more than the other.

The electrified bitterness of Democrats and Republicans must find a common ground. It could start in a new appreciation for the civilizing role of states' rights and the danger of laying federal dictates upon a divided people. We should also be more optimistic about the natural swings of public opinion. Its ebb and flow guide a patient people very well. The danger is that big government makes for a big pendulum with weighty swings that rightly worry us. The more we expect from government the greater the prize in controlling it and the greater the sense of loss in not controlling it. Do not deceive yourself that the problem is simply a matter of who's in charge.

• Mike Heimbuch lives in Homer and writes for Kenai Peninsula newspapers. He was recently an independent candidate for the state House.



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