Centering our national politics on the culture wars is unhelpful because in the end it simply is not cut out for this. The optimal jurisdictional sphere for resolving many of our cultural battles will be localities, not states. Localities must be empowered boldly to operate and experiment within the immense gray areas that the questions that define the culture wars have spawned.
These are tough times for America. With the onset of COVID-19 back in the early spring, some—myself included—thought that the pandemic would “bring us together” even while keeping us physically apart. The partisan bickering and gridlock would have to yield, I thought, in the face of “the invisible enemy.” Instead, wearing a mask has become the newest battle in our decades-long culture war, and the nation’s racial wounds have been torn open. Instead of partially healing some of our political and social divisions, the pandemic has demonstrated their immense depth.
Wherever you come down with respect to the debates over re-opening, mask-wearing, and whatever else, all reasonable citizens ought to feel a bit distressed by our collective failure to effectively navigate COVID-19 by saving as many lives and livelihoods as possible. The reasons we have failed to do so are many, but one certainly stands out: We’re having too many of our political debates at the wrong levels of government.
All too often, issues that would be resolved optimally by local communities at local levels of governance are filtered upwards to state capitals and Washington, D.C. Instead of allowing different locales to go their own way—to respond to the unique needs of their citizenries and to govern themselves in accordance with their own sense of the dictates of justice—we have increasingly turned our state and federal capitals into sites of cultural warfare. This diminishes their capacity to do the real work of practical governance, including in challenging moments like the present.
Americans do have fundamental disagreements as to what the substantive upshot of “liberty and justice for all” is. For example, does “liberty” mean “my body my choice”? Or does “liberty” entail the right of an unborn child to live? We have allowed these fundamental divisions—these battles of the “culture wars”—to so dominate our politics that when something so real, concrete, and urgent as a pandemic rolls along, we are unable to come together and cooperate with one another to adequately respond. An unnecessarily high number of American lives, businesses, and jobs have been lost, and the dysfunction that reigns in Washington and so many of our state capitals is to blame. That dysfunction is partially a product of our sustained inability to recognize that our inundating of our national politics with rights talk and debates over complex questions of morality and biology betrays the logic of our constitutional structure.
Why is this the case? Just look at James Madison’s famous “extended republic” argument in Federalist No. 10. In defending the new, nationalist U.S. Constitution, Madison argued that an “extended republic” was particularly suited to control and weaken the destructive influence of factions. Madison’s logic was straightforward: If you extend the jurisdictional sphere of governance, you’ll take more interests, or factions, into account during the policymaking process. With more factions in the picture, it becomes less likely that one single faction will have the numbers to be wholly dominant. Compromise or stalemate—not one faction’s “oppression” of the others—results.
But one must read in between the lines to decipher an especially important aspect of Madison’s argument: The logic of the extended republic only applied to the sphere of economic regulation. For Madison, “the principal task of modern legislation” is to regulate the “various and interfering interests” that comprise a modern, complex economy—“[a] landed interest, a manufacturing interest, a mercantile interest, a moneyed interest,” etc. The policymaking context in which the logic of the extended republic is most persuasive is that of economic policy. Madison’s plan for controlling the violence of faction by extending the jurisdictional sphere of governance requires there to be a positive correlation between the size of the sphere and the number of factions. This requirement of positive correlation is met when deciding a question like tariff rates; it is rarely met when it comes to the culture wars.
The fraught questions of the culture wars that drum up competing conceptions of human nature, the good, and whatever else tend to be, at base, binary choices. The example of abortion is instructive once again. As we extend the decision-making sphere on a question like abortion, we do not take in a number of new perspectives. However large the sphere, some will deem themselves “pro-choice,” others “pro-life.” There will be small shades of gray on the peripheries (rape and incest exceptions? partial-birth abortions?), but the debate at base is over what is right and what is wrong, not one of balancing multitudinous, self-interested factions.
Thus, centering our national politics on the culture wars is unhelpful, because in the end it simply is not cut out for this. And in this case, Madisonian theory is vindicated by cold, hard, contemporary political reality. In a multiracial nation of roughly 330 million people, it is fanciful to think that disputes over the highest good will be fruitfully resolved at the most central level of government. There must be some national consensus on the content of individual rights and human dignity—see the Bill of Rights and the Reconstruction amendments, for example—but that consensus is a minimal one. States and localities—but particularly localities—must be empowered boldly to operate and experiment within the immense gray areas that the questions that define the culture wars have spawned.
After all, localities are far more equipped to handle these matters, in large part due to the ever-growing salience of cultural divisions to partisan divisions and partisans’ continued geographic sorting into localities. We speak of “red states” and “blue states,” but more often than not our states are far from homogenous social and partisan blocs. Instead, “red” and “blue” just tell us whether blue urban cores or seas of rural red hold more sway within a given state. Thus, while we will always need to respect the protections put forth by the federal Bill of Rights and state constitutions’ bills of rights, our efforts to devolve the culture wars to the state level should only constitute a start. The optimal jurisdictional sphere for resolving many of our cultural battles will be localities, not states.
Localized devolution of the culture wars will help reorient our national politics around the issue axes of redistribution, tariffs, economic and financial policy, taxes, defense policy, etc. A federal government (and state governments) that is more hyper-focused on the matters for which it is best suited will perform better, waste less, and be far better prepared to effectively confront crises like COVID-19 in the years to come. Rather than working against the grain of political reality and our constitutional structure, we ought to work with it. Doing so will result in a healthier politics and a happier citizenry.
The Imaginative Conservative applies the principle of appreciation to the discussion of culture and politics—we approach dialogue with magnanimity rather than with mere civility. Will you help us remain a refreshing oasis in the increasingly contentious arena of modern discourse? Please consider donating now.
 See Mary Ann Glendon, Rights Talk: The Impoverishment of Political Discourse (Free Press, 1993).
 Michael J. Klarman, The Framers’ Coup: The Making of the United States Constitution (Oxford University Press, 2018).
 Ron Johnston, David Manley, and Kelvyn Jones, “Spatial Polarization of Presidential Voting in the United States, 1992–2012: The ‘Big Sort’ Revisited,” Annals of the American Association of Geographers, Volume 106, Issue 5 (2016).
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