From federalism to representation in Congress, America was designed to promote pluralism.
On his radio program, one-time leaving voice of movement conservatism Rush Limbaugh recently declared “there cannot be a peaceful coexistence of two completely different theories of life, theories of government, theories of how we manage our affairs.”
This is the rhetoric of the culture wars. And it’s in complete opposition to the foundational ideas of America.
The narrative of the culture war is an old and tired one at this point: it’s left-right sectarianism, different ideological values, which usually manifest themselves through party identity, instead manifested in social and cultural spaces. It’s the idea that disparate lifestyles and preferences create unique communities.
That should be a good thing: it should mean individuals of disparate beliefs and lifestyles can coexist, each pursuing their own choices and consuming the things they believe in without infringing on anyone else’s ability to do the same.
But not in the context of the culture wars. The culture wars is an outgrowth of the modern-day mindset that all conflicts that arise in the nation ultimately ought to be adjudicated by the federal government. It conflates rights with values, acting as if any impediment to a person’s preferences is an injustice against them.
And it’s because of this that the emotional freneticism that is perhaps the defining characteristic of the culture wars exists: shifts in political power are more than just that; they represent the deathblow of a way of life and all the oppression that accompanies it. In this mindset, there’s no room for pluralism. You’re either in the majority or you and everything you believe in is actively being destroyed by people who disagree with you.
But the entirety of American government is constructed to allow pluralism to flourish: it foundationally recognizes that people with different mindsets exist and should be able to coexist.
It’s why the federal government is limited to a few delegated powers and why the 10th Amendment exists.
It’s also why the legislative branch contains its own internal checks and balances that prevent a majority in one or both bodies from running roughshod over the minorities.
Pluralism and States’ Rights
The lifestyle of a farmer in New England is very different than that of a steel worker in Michigan or that of a programmer in Silicon Valley. There are different economic realities that affect their respective success and different cultural touchstones unique to the areas in which they live. That means a one-size-fits-all policy approach won’t contribute to the success of all.
Conspicuously absent from the Constitution is any mention of Congress having the authority to regulate the economies of the states. Article I, Section 8 gives Congress the authority to regulate commerce between states, but not within them.
Add in the Ninth and Tenth Amendments — which affirm that the rights people hold aren’t limited to those enumerated in the Constitution and that all powers not delegated to the federal government by the Constitution are reserved for the states and the people — and it’s clear that states have sovereignty over their own internal economic affairs.
This leaves states free to pass whatever laws they think are best suited for bolstering the unique set of resources they have in their states. Chief among these is tax incentives: these vary widely by state, depending on the different assets states possess and think might bring in more business. For example, West Virginia and Louisiana offer corporate tax credits to manufacturers as a way to offset personal property taxes and make their states appealing to business executives looking for a place to set up shop.
Other states, for whom manufacturing isn’t a major part of their economy, turn to other measures to bring businesses in. Nebraska offers tax credits to landlords who rent to famers new to the industry.
The point is: states don’t pursue policies that attempt to turn their economy into a mirror of their neighbors. They don’t pin their economic welfare on the success of their neighboring states; they look for ways to augment and sell the resources they already have.
The result is fifty (fifty-one if you count D.C.) unique economies, all of which exist alongside each other.
Pluralism and “Mischief of Faction”
Thanks to the Constitution, America’s constituent states don’t have a monolithic economy. Different industries are more prominent in different states. The economic choices state legislatures, and private actors within those states, all pursue are different. And no one economic action comes at the direct expense of another. Yes, there’s conflict and competition, but for the most part, businesses coexist.
But the Tenth Amendment isn’t the only part of the federal government designed to protect pluralism.
Federalist 10 is famous as the part of The Federalist Papers where James Madison descries the evils of political parties. But this isn’t really what Madison says. Rather, Madison recognizes that differences between people are not only a fundamental part of human life, but are integral to good government. In fact, Madison recognizes that protecting the differences between people is one of the primary roles of government:
“The diversity in the faculties of men, from which the rights of property originate, is not less an insuperable obstacle to the uniformity of interests. The protection of these faculties is the first object of government.”
What Madison means by “faction” is simply a group of people who have a particular interest that another group of people with a different interest might say is deleterious to their interests.
Now, factions can be dangerous. It is essentially runaway factions that combatants in the culture war fear.
But Madison’s scheme of representation within Congress is designed to prevent this from happening. As Madison notes, disagreements are an integral part of human life. Because the mind belongs to the individual, who has different experiences and ways of making judgments, people will always disagree.
Good government, then, shouldn’t try to solve the problem of how to stop people from disagreeing (which is essentially what different factions in the culture war try to do by declaring their viewpoint the only path to moral living) but to make it manageable.
And that’s where proportionality comes into play. The problem with democracy is that a majority, made of a faction who strongly agree about a particular moral value and the way it should be achieved through policy, can run roughshod over a minority. They can not only dispossess minority factions of their voice in the decision-making process, but invalidate their rights, too. If America was a democracy, those who buy into the culture wars might have a point.
But America is a republic. The point of distinction Madison draws between the two is crucially important to understanding how representation in Congress promotes pluralism. Madison writes (again in Federalist 10):
“The two great points of difference between a democracy and a republic are: first, the delegation of the government, in the latter, to a small number of citizens elected by the rest; secondly, the greater number of citizens, and greater sphere of country, over which the latter may be extended.
The effect of the first difference is, on the one hand, to refine and enlarge the public views, by passing them through the medium of a chosen body of citizens, whose wisdom may best discern the true interest of their country, and whose patriotism and love of justice will be least likely to sacrifice it to temporary or partial considerations. Under such a regulation, it may well happen that the public voice, pronounced by the representatives of the people, will be more consonant to the public good than if pronounced by the people themselves, convened for the purpose.”
Legislators can, of course, go awry. However, this is less likely to occur when the viewpoints of legislators from different factions are proportionate to the number of people in the electorate who belong to those factions. To put this in modern terms, that means if polling suggests Democrats make up 52% of the electorate, then roughly 52% of representatives in Congress should be Democrats.
States, too, are meant to have a voice in the Senate, hence the appointment of Senators by the states in the Constitution prior to the ratification of the 17th Amendment.
Congress — which represents the primary means by which individuals are politically represented — is meticulously designed to promote pluralism and to ensure people of different value sets can coexist.
Remember, too, that government is not all-commanding. It’s authoritative only on those matters the Constitution delegates to it. In all other areas of life, states and individuals have the final say. And that means that those who find themselves not represented by the majority in Congress still have freedom to dissent from the values that are endorsed by federal policy and pursue their own ends in their own life.
Foundationally, and structurally, America is dedicated to promoting pluralism, to securing freedom as a means to ensuring people can follow their own judgment and values.
The Founders didn’t go to such great length to do this just to protect one way of life, but many different ways of life. To suggest America can’t survive if people ascribe to different and conflicting cultures and ways of life is patently absurd.