When you always can’t get what you want

Genteel landOne thing we expect in a democracy is that the majority gets its way. But even though it does get its way in the end, getting there involves a certain amount of deliberative discussion and a healthy amount of compromise. Give and take is the name of the game – sometimes you get what you want, and sometimes you don’t.

Clearly, the Republicans have been missing that memo ever since Grover Norquist first undertook to “inoculate them against the virus of compromise,” whereupon they proceeded over the next two decades to fulfill their anti-government animus by effectively gridlocking Washington right out of the governing business.

In the absence of compromise, and especially the action it enables, what remains is talk, and the talk that remains serves mainly to hog up the available bandwidth of public discourse with pet ideological complaints that have little bearing on the practicalities of actually running a large industrialized nation-state.

One such bit of bluster that has had a lot of replay lately is a perennial favorite of the Republican core constituency: “states’ rights.” It’s the old song, and very much a song of the South. To hear the sons of Dixie tell it (the daughters don’t get to, of course), it seems that nearly anything that the government wants to do to promote the general welfare will somehow end up trampling states’ rights. Never mind voters’ rights or women’s rights – these must take a back seat to the state’s rights, depending on which particular state it is whose rights are under threat.

Almost always, the state or states in question once belonged to the Confederacy, and for a while the term “states’ rights” was code for resisting Washington on the matter of racial integration. Jim Crow, a post-slavery incarnation of the Southern caste system, seemed to be as emblematic of that nation and its way of life as George Washington is of the nation whose capital city bears his name, so the resistance came with a patriotism-like intensity.

Although race-based subjection has had to keep a low profile since then, the resistance to Washington’s “impositions” continues, through one diversionary objection or another, and the resistance is so enduring and visceral and seemingly pervasive throughout the Southern body politic that it calls for some sort of account beyond writing it off  to bigotry – or just sheer cussedness – and simply leaving it at that.

An account that blunt, while accurate, seems inadequate. Simply noting that awful behavior is in fact awful doesn’t give us much in the way of understanding it well enough to deal with it, let alone deter it.

Likewise, there’s not much help to be had in making an apologetic case for the South, pointing out the pockets of relative enlightenment in mostly-urban areas – nor the flip side, pointing out the abundant racism and redneck-style orneriness that take place outside the borders of the old Confederacy. Again, these observations would be true, but kind of miss the point.

Federal debating society meetsWhat we have here in the halls of our dysfunctional democracy are two groups that are roughly equal in power, each of whom wants something they value. The values tend to be cultural, further complicating reasoned discourse. What has broken down is the expectation that differences between opposing positions can be narrowed and overcome through deliberation and compromise.

In this situation, not only is compromise removed from the process, the values are so far apart as to be mutually exclusive. The Republicans, carrying the banner of Southern patriarchal values, refuse to accept gay marriage, for example, while the Democrats maintain that it’s a matter of equality to allow it.

There’s a whole litany of similar issues in which there is little or no common ground, no values shared, and in many cases, directly opposed. In each case, the majority prevails, and the opposition doesn’t get what it wants. In theory, fair enough – after all, you can’t expect to get your way all the time.

How this plays out in the long term, however, is interesting to consider. Following the premise that “you can’t always get your way,” there seem to be at least two possibilities: A) you get your way, certainly not always, but some of the time, or B) you can’t ever have the one particular thing you want, and if it’s something you insist on valuing, you will be the subject of scorn until you by golly come off it, change your values, and stop pushing for it.

This is a decidedly unpleasant dilemma. If it’s option “A,” I hate to think what the states’ rights crowd would inflict on the rest of us when they did get their way – especially considering the institutionalized racism and theocracy for which “states’ rights” is usually a proxy issue.

If it’s option “B,” on the other hand, there’s a built-in hazard that long-term denial of a particular advocacy group’s goals – however distasteful those may be – will form a kind of residue of resentment that eventually stands to gum up the works for everybody. Witness the gridlock we’re experiencing today. When we insist that an interest group take part in our governance, yet consistently outvote them on what they are most interested in, it does not turn out well for us. To put it starkly, we end up with a viper in the nest.

There’s a good case to be made that today’s GOP, with its predominance of Southern leaders and values, has effectively become a political arm of the cultural region that once tried for independence as a nation of its own, the Confederate States of America. They were anti-Washington then; they remained anti-Washington after their independence was suppressed by force of arms, and they are anti-Washington today, expressed more politely in Republican  ideological terms as “smaller government.”

Patron saint of lost causes

Patron saint of lost causes

Post-1865, the US became more like a continental empire and less like a federation. For the latter, we would have to assume participation of the various states to be voluntary, but now there was a conquered people, a subject nation, within its borders. Conquered people don’t just get over it in a few generations, and if their descendants who are obliged to share in the governing of such a forced union end up intentionally or unintentionally defeating the process for everyone, it should come as no surprise.

This is not to say that Southern aspirations, as curated by the GOP, necessarily include political independence from the US. It would probably be too much to hope for, given how badly that went for them last time.

However, it does seem likely that the passive sabotage of Washington’s legislative abilities is consistent with the reaction of a people – a nation – who are forced to be one kind of nation, when all they want to be is their own kind of nation. Unfortunately for the union, that nation is hierarchical, theocratic, patriarchal, and historically committed to a racial caste system.

Those of us who identify with the “true America” – the Union that was preserved and enforced by the Civil War – take it for granted that we have some say about who qualifies as a legitimate nation and who doesn’t. Official US policy certainly makes case-by-case distinctions throughout the world, e.g., Iraq qualifies, but Kurdistan doesn’t. There might be some disagreement with some of those calls as they apply outside US borders, but inside – well, the very idea is so un-American it’s usually taken as a fair subject for raucous humor.

And yet, here we are, two nations with irreconcilable differences. Apparently, we’re staying together for the kids’ sake. Even if there were some way to separate amicably, most Union sympathizers would cringe at the thought of what an irredeemably backward and benighted country Dixie would become if allowed to go its own way.

Arguably so, but it’s also true that there’s a missionary zeal in US tradition that often puts us in the redemption business, and almost as often, leaves us wishing we hadn’t. Another un-American notion, perhaps, but there’s a certain wisdom in dealing respectfully with foreign nations who happen to have customs and institutions that are contradictory to one’s own.

So, if indeed having two or more nation-states between Canada and Mexico is an effective and just outcome, how does it happen peaceably? Big question. But that’s the first step, to admit that civil war is not inevitable and that our own turned out to be pretty much of a mistake – a crummy choice among the possible ways to end slavery, and a complete failure at winning Southern hearts and minds.

It’s also helpful to buy into the axiom that for any just end, there exist just means. Then it’s only a matter of will. Here in the US, it must be the will of the majority, so it would probably take a while. There are actually quite a few examples throughout the civilized world that we could benefit from – Scotland’s separation from Britain and Catalonia’s from Spain, just to name two that are being taken seriously. Maybe it can’t happen here, but then again, it may be too hasty to say that it shouldn’t.

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