Back to 1790 and the Fight Over Federalism

As our forefathers learned during their struggle to move from a revolutionary Confederacy to a genuine constitutional democracy, the fundamental differences between regions and local constituencies can be dangerous.

In 2015, historian Joseph Ellis wrote a brilliant and gripping book called The Quartet about how Washington, Jefferson, Hamilton, and Jay led the fight to unify the former colonies under a Constitution. It is not clear that Ellis foresaw the results of the 2016 election, but he may well have because he teaches vividly that we are now facing a similar fight.

Divided as our country is today, our standing in the world is at the risk of blowing away. The classic phrase “united we stand, divided we fall” appears to have vanished. Or perhaps it has been revealed as prophecy.

Part of the problem is again the haves vs the have nots, but the cultural schisms between “us” and “them” have assumed a greater prominence than in a very long time.

If there were a single dividing issue—as there was with slavery in the middle of the 19th century—it might be possible that we could be on the brink of not just protests but genuine military fighting.

The map of our divisions is different today from the late 1700s and the late 1850s, BUT it is clear that most of the coastal USA (plus a few major urban centers) is liberal in its orientation and most of the rest of our country is conservative.

Happily (?), this map does not lend itself easily to organized military conflict. But as we see globally, maps are no longer the cornerstones of modern armed conflict, which can erupt seemingly anywhere and everywhere and at any time.

So what are the major issues which are dividing us today?

–Immigration: Though not a problem in 1800 or 1860, it is today and can be managed without conflict.

–Race: we fought the civil war and have made great progress toward genuine equality, but we still have quite a way to go.

–Elites vs blue collar: our economy is changing as we inexorably become more and more a service society and we need to find ways to  lift up all members of society.

–The internet: the echo chambers of social media are destroying productive political discourse.

–Representation: our system is collapsing with abuses of campaign finance and distorted districting.

–Checks and Balances: Congress and the President show no signs of interest in seeking common public good through good faith efforts to compromise.

–Sloganeering: simplistic and misleading slogans like America First and “drain the swamp” are taking over rational thought.

The days when leaders like Washington, Hamilton, Jay, and Jefferson’s voices stood out and meant a lot to most people sadly may be gone forever.

But what was clear when the Constitutional Convention first assembled is clear again.

Read Ellis’s book and urge everyone you know to do so. It will never go out of style.

Together, there may be in due course enough support to try for a new Convention to seek consensus on the issues that must be addressed today to save our nation.


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