Politics

The Rule of Law

America is eiight regional cultures. At least that’s what historian Colin Woodard says in his extremely relevant book American Nations: A History of Eleven Rival Regional Cultures in North AmericaEach culture was created by a region’s original settlers or those that came immediately after. All those that followed for centuries were assimilated.

Yankeedom, New Amsterdam, Tidewater, Greater Appalachia, The Deep South, Del Norte, The Far West and The Left Coast; all different places with different cultures and defining values, economic interests and voting patterns.

If you’ve lived in more than one, it’s hard to argue with the notion that these places are very different from each other. Woodard’s basic hypothesis, that these regions today are a modern version of the culture their founders settled on, shaped by the interests of those that tread the land for the first time, is hard to ignore. It’s even more compelling when you see what Donald Trump tapped into in 2016 by coupling Greater Appalachia and The Deep South with racial identity politics, while winning narrowly in the Midlands through a sharp message to blue collar America.

For centuries, these eight distinct cultures have been bound together into one nation. They’ve maintained the three things that political scientist Francis Fukuyama says all liberal democracies must have: A strong central government, democratic accountability and the rule of law.

The nuance of the last requirement is important. It’s misunderstood regularly and with great consequence. The rule of law is not the enforcement of laws or an inflated sense of justice. It’s a common set of beliefs that exist and have existed in the nature of those governed since before the body that governs them was charged with governing. The rule of law is those first principles for which the purpose of government is to defend, not create. Man believed in law long before the notion of legislating or creating his own came to him.

For centuries, it was religion that provided it. In medieval Europe, it was the Canonical law of the Catholic Church. In the early Caliphates of the Middle East it was Sharia Law. But in America, we had something else.

The Constitution. It is our religion. And its signers are our saints.

We fractured violently once; pulled apart by the cultures that relied on slavery. But our religion prevailed. If the Declaration of Independence was our Immaculate Conception than the Civil War was our Crucifixion.

The Resurrection was delivered on the battlefield of Gettysburg by the last of our prophets.

It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us — that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion — that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain — that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

That our government is for us, by us and ceases to be relevant outside that charter is the idea that has bound these seven tribes together into one state. When I was sworn in to serve my country as a young Naval Officer I raised my hand and swore an oath, not to protect my country, or my hometown or my family. I swore it to a document. “That I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies foreign and domestic.”

It is the common scripture of our people.

Like most religions, there’s a grand struggle over what matters most. Its words and its history and tradition? Or the people who are drawn to the promise they represent. And like most religions, some will do their best to invoke it to maintain the power structure that suits them.

We are constant in our flaws.

Those left behind by our history, unprotected by our rule of law of equality and the pursuit of happiness, have stronger voices today than they once did though. And they are less willing to blindly subscribe to the narrative of our faith that tells them they ought to be grateful for the 240 years that they’ve experienced. It’s been two full generations since the Civil Rights movement ended the subjugation of African Americans. It’s been two full generations since Title IV allowed women equal access to education. Since then, the median wage for women has increased 30%. It’s increased 10% for African Americans.

This growth has come at a time when the overall pie was not growing though. America has been a zero-sum game for 50 years. As some have grown, others have lost. The prime working age man earns 28% less today than he did in 1970.

Scarcity breeds friction.

Our fights today involve statues of our past and the honoring —or lack of—our national anthems and symbology. We see the resurgence of those who have lost power, literal value and standing in our society in the ugly organization and public presence of white supremacists. A refusal to backslide into the America of old and accept less than equal protection under the law or equal treatment in the workplace by those who have gained ground is met with a snap back against those not protected by our laws; immigrants, legal or otherwise. The predictable promise of a strong man to usher in the old ways, is perhaps, sounding the tipping point, one way or another.

When you reconstruct it, it’s near mathematical.

How we reconcile our past, accept our present and plan for a future together is the great question of our time. It’s the great question of any time though.

When the pie is fixed, more for some is less for others. And that means friction. Perhaps a better question to ask than whose lives matters or what statues stay and leave, is this:

How do we unfix the pie?

All thoughtful answers are welcome.

5 replies »

  1. Can the pie be “unfixed” when so few control so much of it? There is such need in the whole of our infrastructure: education, physical structures and systems, healthcare, affordable housing, public transportation, utilities, food …

    The big ideas of needed innovation are now shuttered behind gates with keepers and only the privileged may apply. Locked out into an acceptance of America as a service economy, American genius is stillborn within the minds of those abandoned by a global economy. Why educate Americans when we can seek better-trained minds elsewhere? Why develop new industries at home when it is so much more profitable to do it elsewhere?

    Will the billions spent in response to natural disaster across the country ever take advantage of the opportunity to induct new engineers and scientists, new innovators and new approaches to solving ongoing and widening problems?

    America is capable of nation-wide endeavors to solve nation-wide needs. What we have lost is the will to solve the problems that have created a people willing to be led by distraction, rather than by the resolve to improve where improvement is the mandate of our constitutional values.

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  2. The biggest reason the pie has been ‘fixed’ for the many is because so much of the increase in the size of the pie has gone to the top 10% over the past 30+ years. Until we find a solution to that, it won’t matter to most of us if the pie gets bigger because the increase will continue to get skimmed and the bottom 90% of our fellow citizens will see little benefit.

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  3. The capitalist system is designed around winners and losers, with the mythology that “winners” (or “makers” in the current parlance) are the ones that get “more”, however unfair that may be to the losers. As others have already noted, those with the most pie are not inclined to give any up. Those who perceive their pie was taken from them by the “losers” (or “takers”) want it back.

    As long we stay with the makers and takers and pie-stealing linguistic frame, there really is no answer. So perhaps it’s time to modify the frame. The founders themselves wrote at length about the risks of concentrated power, while also understanding (and working) within the tension that is created when there is only one pie and everyone wants all of it. We all could use a big dose of intellectual honesty about the mess we have collectively created (either actively or passively, by not getting involved sooner) and get to the table to hash it out. Your blog is a piece of that dialogue, and one I value. Thanks for the space to share these ideas.

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  4. Hey Sean — For what it’s worth, I’ve tried to take on “the problem” identified in American Nations in its sequel, American Character: The History of the Epic Struggle Between Individual Freedom and the Common Good. Your clearly a thoughtful person, and I’d be curious what you think if you get a chance to read it.

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    • Colin, I’ll do it with great excitement. Nations was one of those “right book, right time” reads that organized some thoughts for me and unlocked a whole pile of new disorganized ones…which is about as good a thing as I can say about a book.

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