At the root of the polarization poisoning American politics is a fierce disagreement over the proper role of government. But do most citizens have a fully reasoned view of what we want government to actually do? Is that part of the problem?
Perhaps a little thought experiment would help.
What if America woke up tomorrow and discovered that all government had vanished? No president, no Congress, no governors or state legislatures, no mayors or city councils.
Just us, the people.
What would we do? How would we manage the chaos? How would services be provided, and order maintained? If we were the only ones in charge, how would we govern ourselves? According to what rules? What kind of system would we create? Who would decide? The questions are endless. What would happen -- and what would we do?
Americans may be deeply divided, but there's one thing most of us agree on: Our political system is broken, and there is little to no chance it can fix itself. It doesn't matter whether you're left, right, or otherwise -- this seems an immutable fact of modern politics. And it's scaring the hell out of us.
When not frozen in fear, we seethe with anger or sulk in frustration. The foxes are in charge of the henhouse, and the average person feels his or her voice can't be heard, and there's no way to change that -- save taking it to the streets -- which few of us can do, and have little reason to believe can move the dial much anyway.
It's all incredibly depressing. The great American Spirit smothered by a new American Malaise.
So as the presidential campaign heats up, and political tribes intensify their bloody battle, guaranteed to further divide us, maybe taking a few minutes here and there to contemplate a country that had to rebuild its political institutions from scratch might be just what the doctor ordered.
If we had no government at all -- and no Constitution to instruct us on how to form one -- What would we do?
Give it try. Think about what your neighborhood would look like. And your community at large. Think about all the things we take for granted that will cease to exist overnight, or that will no longer be maintained. How will we respond? Will violence break out, will might make right, survival of the fittest? If more reasoned heads prevail, how will they -- we -- organize our affairs together? What mechanisms will we use to try and persuade each other to take this path or that? What wisdom of the ages will we use as our guides? Are we wise enough to make use of that wisdom?
Then ask your friends and family to play around with this brain teaser as well. Who knows, it just might get us ordinary people thinking about root level questions for a change instead of arguing about (or recoiling from) all the political triviality we're spoon fed on a daily basis.
And then maybe we could have an intelligent debate about the role of government. One that's comprehensive, and well reasoned, and civil.
I know, I'm a dreamer. But from little acorns, you never know.
From anecdotal evidence with friends who love to humor me, I've found that if you spend a little time wrestling with the implications of this premise, you immediately confront hard questions, leading us inexorably back to the philosophies that informed our truly enlightened founding documents -- an extraordinary inheritance, the full meaning of which we ignore at our own peril.
Contemplating the purposes and structure of a new government might sound like an exercise only for eggheads and wonks -- two pejoratives that none of us would ever use to describe our Constitution's framers, the first players in our game. But such an exercise in democracy-building needs everybody playing for it to have real meaning. It is, after all We the People -- not we the elites, or we the activists. Everyone's opinion matters and counts -- whether you're a philosopher or farmer, teacher or preacher, superstar or sinner.
So pass this puzzle around, and encourage those you can influence to get in the game. Because even if we don't have to figure it out all over again -- even though we're blessed with an ingenious form of government that won't disappear tomorrow -- we will always need an army of informed and active citizens to keep it honest, and working for the common good.
We've lost our way. Perhaps the best way back is to start at the beginning again.
Follow Jeffrey Abelson on Twitter: www.twitter.com/jeffreyabelson