12/29/2012 03:23 pm ET Updated Feb 28, 2013

A Philosophical Civil War in Dying America

My thesis of American democracy continues with the notion that our country, besides possessing favorable original systemic conditions, also has enjoyed for much of its history a conducive societal mindset for expanding public authority on behalf of democratic ideals. In other words, a distinct national culture has been instrumental in producing the continuous blessings and benefits of American democracy for the past two centuries.

Unfortunately, the most disruptive development in contemporary America is a divisive struggle over democratic ideals, cultural values, and principles of governance. We have plunged deep into a morass of serious and stubborn philosophical questions, some of which -- like the role of religion and the power of central government -- have dogged our nation since its birth and now threaten the future of American democracy.

It seems especially suitable, as President Barack Obama articulates his mission of national transformation, that we talk about this philosophical debate in our discussion of the future of American democracy.


In my last post, I proposed that our historically-favorable systemic environment has declined; now I want to talk about my second proposition, the contention that America is stuck in a destructive struggle over the essence of its Great Experiment.

In effect, we have entrapped our national democratic experiment within a philosophical civil war about "what America means" and "how America ought to work." Various forces and powerful factions now struggle for control of the American experiment in terms of newly contentious ideals, substantive values, and procedural principles, presenting a national challenge that is qualitatively different from anything experienced since the violent Civil War of the 1860s.

General Mood

The contemporary war defies easy definition because there are no clear ideologies, armies, or battlelines, and because there are too many dimensions, contradictions, and inconsistencies for easy characterization. However, I will attempt to convey my view of the basic nature and crosscurrents of the war.

The general mood of today's unsettling debate is one that supports democratic principles in general but questions, for a variety of reasons, the direction of American democracy. On one hand are hyper-champions of democratic ideals (particularly freedom) whose concept of democracy emphasizes the values of traditional, majoritarian, advantaged society. On the other hand are similar hyper-champions of democratic ideals (especially equality) whose concept of democracy emphasizes the values of an emerging, heterogeneous, disadvantaged society.

More often than not, the first camp favors a private-sector route to proper ideals and values (somewhat like the situation during our original, natural environment) and finds much to dislike about the contemporary democratic experiment; and the latter camp usually finds activist government (as in the historic expansion of public authority) in keeping with their views about ideals and values, views that fit more comfortably in recent development of the democratic experiment. Obviously contributing to the anxiety of this situation is the fact that the traditional, majoritarian culture is in danger of losing its historically dominant status in an increasingly diverse and divergent America.

In practice, our philosophical civil war can best be described as an unprecedented national brawl, an anarchic streetfight, a political free-for-all among disparate forces challenging the status and course of American democracy. This is a systemic convulsion, an explosive reconsideration of democratic ideals, mixed with destabilizing cultural values, along with the possibility of rearranged governance -- all during, and perhaps reflecting, increasingly adverse systemic conditions for American democracy.

Now, I want to focus on the most critical aspects of this struggle -- (a) a debate over the cultural mores of private and public life and (b) the rise of neopopulism -- that pose dramatic challenges for American society.

Culture War

America's contemporary debate over cultural values -- popularly referenced as "the Culture War" or "Culture Wars" -- is a disjointed but far-reaching development.

Countless individuals, institutions, and movements now hope to determine, absolutely, America's basic values as a nation. After two centuries of functional indefiniteness, we are conducting an intense national debate over "what America means;" and we seem to be heading toward a national cultural showdown.

To many, the defining framework of the culture war is destructive partisan battling between Republicans and Democrats, or the persistent rancor between conservatives and liberals, or the rantings of religious leaders versus secular activists. However you label them, the former share a commitment to a consistent, unchangeable concept of what is good, who we are, and how we should live; they believe that moral authority comes from above and for all time. For the latter, on the other hand, moral authority tends to be defined within the experience of contemporary human society; and they view truth as a process that is forever unfolding.

But the values struggle is broader, deeper, and more consequential than politics and personalities. The war essentially pits those inclined toward traditional orthodoxy against those inclined toward the spirit of the modern age.

Neopopulist Democracy

A less dramatic, relatively unfocused, but equally unsettling challenge of the philosophical civil war is the growing debate over "how America ought to work," or, more specifically, how we want to govern ourselves as a nation.

In America, the centerpiece of western democracy, we have fallen head-over-heels in love, again, with the idea that virtue, wisdom, and potential reside in "the people" rather than big institutions, mass society, or the government. Contemporary America -- newly enamored of democratic ideals -- increasingly is tweaking its historic republican experiment in favor of initiatives, referenda, and other means of plebiscitary governance.

There is every reason to suspect that the forces of "neopopulist democracy," invigorated with progressive fervor and technological prowess, will press forward as the ultimate solution to the bungling, broken mechanics of traditional American democracy.

Philosophical Resolution?

Most Americans could care less, but for a disturbing number of activists and interests, America has plunged into an all-out survival struggle over fundamental ideals, values, and governance. Powerful forces on different sides of many divisive, interrelated issues demand that whatever they want is a matter of moral imperative and public consequence which must be resolved, absolutely, now, with finality and authority, at least for themselves and perhaps for everybody in America.

Election 2012 seems to have brought this long-simmering philosophical debate to a head. Many see President Barack Obama as the catalyst for progressive victory; others see him as a threat to traditional governance. Either way, the philosophical civil war -- working in tandem with the uncertainties of a changing systemic environment -- spells volatility for the future of the Great Experiment.

In my next post, I will discuss the proposition that American democracy no longer works the way it has in the past.

(For previous posts in this series, click here.)

Author's Note: This is the eighth in a sixteen-part series of discussions about Election 2012, Barack Obama, and the future of American democracy. This series includes edited, updated material from my book, The Future of American Democracy: A Former Congressman's Unconventional Analysis (2002). I'm grateful to University Press of America for allowing me to borrow from that publication for my discussions on Huffington Post.