We must relocate the culture wars, sending them back to the states and the local communities where they have at least some chance of being reasonably well managed.
Rather like the real but obscured moral/political aspects of the health care dilemma, the abortion issue and issues concerning marriage for homosexuals and surrogate parenthood and certain related others can never be settled on the level of American national politics. These are issues that raise absolutist claims that, by their very natures, resist compromise. The result is a source of permanent divisiveness that has helped to drive our political parties into the hands of extremists on both sides. This is bad for everyone; it destroys social capital by the buckets.
And it, too, is getting worse. Perhaps one of the most appalling aspects of the 2012 presidential election campaign was how much attention got paid to culture war issues. Republicans often talked about how critical limiting abortion was to their basic program, and largely in response, activist Democrats talked more about abortion as an absolute right than about any other subject.1
The problem with this is that none of the culture war issues really matters directly and immediately to the nation. They may matter in due course, yes; anyone who thinks that the character of social arrangements (monogamous marriage, for example) and the authority relationships that define them have no impact on the long-term health and strength of a civilization needs a remedial history lesson, and probably would do well to review the basic message of the Hebrew prophets. But when it comes to the American political economy and its place in the world—its widely shared prosperity, its scientific-technological dynamism, its global power and prestige—most of these issues are completely irrelevant, and the rest only clingingly so.
As recently as half a dozen years ago, just about all the clever social analysts believed that culture war arguments were luxury goods in political terms; people only scream at each other over them, it was averred, because everything was basically alright. Hit a bump in the road on pocketbook issues, we were assured, and most of the self-righteous froth associated with these arguments would fizzle to near nothingness. Some have argued that religious and cultural issues have indeed been eclipsed by economic ones these days, and specifically during the 2012 campaign at least in the Republican Party, but I am not so sure. It could be that frustration with doing anything serious about the structural problems with the political economy has boomeranged to make people more focused on religious and social concerns. It’s not an easy thing to measure.
Whatever the case, happily there are such things in the United States as regional sensibilities and local differences. That’s natural in a country as large and with social origins as diverse as ours. Following from the principle of subsidiarity, judgments about abortion and homosexual rights should be rendered at the state level and perhaps, in some cases, at the municipal or local level.
My own view is that decisions on abortion and homosexual marriage are inherently religious decisions, and that these decisions should be made among interested family members and their respective clergy. Where decisions are matters of consent and no living person can be construed as a victim of any judgment, government should have as little a role as possible in them. That is what liberty is all about, after all. I can find no evidence whatsoever anywhere in the Constitution or the Bill of Rights that these kinds of issues are the business of the Federal government.
Of course, not everyone has a religious tradition or community to turn to, and some communal standards are certainly necessary at the outer limits of potential human behavior. If, say, a group of cultists whose members stood for the public execution of adulterers moved into your town, the larger community would have a natural right to prevent that if, as one would hope, it so desired. But it is clear that local communities, at a maximum individual states, have a much better chance of reaching working compromises on sensitive moral issues than the country as a whole. And if minorities within a community or state disagree with the local consensus reached on issues like abortion and homosexual marriage, they can always go someplace where the consensus is more to their liking. It’s a free and thankfully a diverse country.
Therefore, the two main parties should agree not to use the Congress as a platform from which to wage culture war against each other. So, for example, we should never stick last-minute amendments limiting or promoting abortion onto bills having to do, say, with funding the continuation of the government—which actually happened not long ago. We need to stop beating ourselves up in battles no one can ever win at the national level. The party leaderships should also agree that, at the level of the states, every effort should be made to cooperate to define standards acceptable to the majority. That’s the best we can do, and it’s the least we should do.
1Note the ground-zero report on the Democrats by Melinda Henneberg, “Democrats and their obsession with abortion”, Washington Post, September 7, 2012.