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Why Is America So Politically Polarized?

The stunning defeat of Eric Cantor is tangible evidence of a grim political reality. The American public is fundamentally polarized about government. While there are many gradations of views, the fundamental divide can be simply described. One group thinks that government has become the problem. The other group thinks that government is the solution.

But here's the catch: the great divide is not between the Republican and Democratic establishments.

Eric Cantor was a leader of the “government is the solution” wing of the Republican Party. He was defeated because a majority of the Republican primary voters in his district believe that government is the problem.

Mainstream media keep lecturing the Republican Party that if we nominate “Tea Party” candidates, we will lose. This is because the media belongs to the “government is the solution” faction. They will “date” big government Republicans, like Cantor, but they will only “marry” Democrats who are more consistently faithful in promoting bigger government solutions.

The public at large appears to suffer from political schizophrenia. About 90% of the public has an unfavorable view of Congress. And in 2010, Tea Party candidates enjoyed spectacular success in Congressional elections. This would seem to reveal a very high public acceptance of the “government is the problem” philosophy. On the other hand, the ultimate “government is the solution candidate”—Barack Obama—handily won reelection in 2012.

This divide is based on two diametrically opposed political philosophies; a dichotomy which is best understood by considering this fundamental question: “What is the purpose of government?”

The “government is the solution” faction believes that the purpose of government is to provide for our needs. The “government is the problem” contingent believes that the purpose of government is to protect life, liberty, and property.

Those who place the highest value on government services can properly be called “statists” with a tendency toward socialism. Those who view government’s role as primarily protecting life, liberty, and property are advocates of freedom. Statism and freedom cannot mutually coexist for extended periods. They cannot peaceably coexist. One will dominate over the other. Clash is inevitable.

There is an important nuance that needs to be understood about the “freedom” faction. Some libertarians take such an extreme view of the legitimate purposes of government that they have no room in their political philosophy for government services like roads, bridges, parks, libraries—and in some rare cases—even police and fire protection. A far bigger contingent (who are often more comfortable with the term “conservative” than “libertarian”) accepts the legitimacy of such government services.

Conservatives and libertarians agree on one big thing in this connection. The federal government has no business providing any service that is not specifically listed in the Constitution. Such conservatives contend that at the state level it is appropriate for government to provide limited public services (roads, bridges, parks, fire, police, etc.) that promote the “general welfare”. They reject, however, the notion that government should be in the business of providing for the needs of individuals. They draw a line between reasonable services for the community at large versus furnishing food, clothing, shelter, medical care, and cell phones for individuals.

One of the reasons that we have so much confusion is that we have not had political leaders who understand the importance of these basic philosophical premises. Most elections tend to reflect a debate between the two flavors of the statist viewpoint. For example, Obama offered the view of Generous Socialism while Mitt Romney campaigned on Stingy Socialism—although he would have argued that it was a question of efficiency or “fiscal responsibility” rather than stinginess.

There is, however, a path to substantially diminish the rancor and bitter divisiveness in American political life. Domestic policy needs to be controlled almost exclusively at the state level.

If the federal government devoted itself to national defense, foreign policy, and the few specific programs given to it by the Constitution (e.g. the Patent office, and the Federal Aviation Administration), then the states could follow a variety of paths on the highly contentious domestic issues. (This is not to say that there are no divides on foreign policy or national defense. But in these areas, most debates are about tactics and effective means of implementation, rather than fundamental differences of ultimate goals.)

If some states want to try Generous Socialism—so be it. Let’s see how sustainable that approach will be. Other states could try Stingy Socialism. I would guess that most “Red” states would try to follow the Conservative Freedom path—providing reasonable public services, while working to gradually eliminate most programs that seek to provide for the needs and wants of individuals. A state or two might end up attempting a more purist libertarian approach.

In this manner, we would all be able to see which philosophy of government actually works best. We will learn which approach produces the greatest prosperity for all, the most freedom, the fairest system of justice, and the most protections of individual rights. People and jobs would tend to move to the state that achieved the best results in these and other areas—although some might simply move to get the greatest level of government services.

This is called federalism. And it will never come from Washington, D.C., leadership. No matter how many Eric Cantors go down to defeat, the power cabal in Washington is utterly committed to the Statist viewpoint with one party advocating Stingy Socialism and the other contending for the more generous variety of the same philosophy.

The Convention of States Project wants to use the provisions of Article V of the Constitution to transfer the bulk of domestic authority from Washington, D.C., to the states. While this is perceived as a conservative effort, it really should be viewed as nonpartisan on ultimate questions of political philosophy. We have only one core agenda item—moving the decisions on domestic issues to a more local level. This would allow for the implementation of a variety of approaches rather than keeping us locked into a single approach dictated by Washington, D.C.

There are dangerous signs in our nation, moreover, that the present contentiousness might ultimately go beyond political upsets. A growing minority is talking about revolutionary concepts like nullification and secession. A Convention of States is the Constitution’s own peaceful solution for those who believe the federal government has gone beyond its legitimate bounds.

We can dramatically lessen the tensions arising from polarization by pursuing domestic federalism in a serious manner. The Convention of States approach is the best solution to the friction and dangerous discord that marks today’s political environment.