At least since Pat Buchanan’s famous 1992 Republican National Convention speech that “sounded better in the original German,” Americans have been divided over so-called “culture war” issues. That includes abortion, LGBT rights, guns, and more recently such weighty matters as whether white people should be allowed to use non-white emojis (thankfully, the pols haven’t waded into this one quite yet) and whether football players should be allowed to kneel. Most culture war issues have produced political stalemates, but also plenty of paranoia, radicalization, and a cycle of escalating mutual overreaction.
Whatever the merits of the respective causes, there would be no “abortion selfies” without anti-abortion radicals; there would be no gun-nut preppers without supporters of actual gun confiscation, who really do exist. It is bad enough that such polar extremes exist, and it is even worse to contemplate their blessing on government policy. How to stop this war between the edges? Quite simply, we need a moratorium on federal social issues policy. It might be the easiest way to restore some sanity to our political process and civic culture.
We need this because social issues tend to strike at people’s most deeply held beliefs. It is hard to understand differing positions as political disagreements only. They are not the sort of issues that lend themselves to compromise or politicking. They invariably become—because they are—moral, ethical, and religious disagreements.
Take abortion. While many Americans are willing to make some kind of compromise—no elective abortion after 20 weeks or the first trimester, for example—millions of Americans believe that abortion is a fundamental right, and many millions more just as strongly believe it to be a barbaric act ethically indistinguishable from murder. Same for LGBT empowerment—it’s not okay to give people just a few human rights. Once any question becomes understood as a matter of fundamental rights, it becomes immune to the normal political process, with little room to move on either side. It doesn’t really matter who is right. What matters is that a political system based on deliberation and compromise is peculiarly ill-suited to address deep moral divides.
Some on the conservative side of the culture wars understand this, such as columnist Wesley Smith, who writes at First Things: “For matters involving bitter differences over fundamental values…‘compromise’ is unachievable, because accord would require one side to surrender its moral views to the other.” However, their conclusion tends to be despairing: either we will continue down the path of rancor, or we will totally embrace one or the other of two irreconcilable moralities, thus disenfranchising millions of Americans who disagree.
But there is a third option: to “cool down” the culture-war dynamic by getting the federal government out of the social-issues business for one or two presidential terms. When neither side feels that the federal government is picking favorites, much of the rancor may well dissipate.
So more roads, bridges, and budgets; no more making bathroom policy from the White House. No more Pentagon announcements on LGBTs. No more presidential candidates who don’t want their daughters to be “punished with a baby” or dreaming of using the presidential bully pulpit to talk about the “dangers of contraception.” No more condemning the police for “acting stupidly” or fulminating about un-American football players. During the 2016 election, Hillary Clinton tweeted: “Marriage equality is the law of the land. Deal with it,” accompanied by a GIF of herself dancing against a rainbow background. No more of that either.
The proper areas of action for the federal government, which is to say the ones for which it was mainly intended, are mostly managerial, technocratic, and soporific: ensuring national security; funding and maintaining the major infrastructure and shaping general infrastructure policy; crafting conditions for economic growth; ensuring nationwide environmental quality; weighing the optimal level of taxation and public benefits. We disagree about these issues, to be sure, and sometimes vehemently. But at the end of the day, no reasonable person really believes that a 40 percent tax rate is evil, as opposed to a 20 percent tax rate (Randians excepted). Nobody believes it is the moral equivalent of murder to build or not build roads and bridges (deep ecologists excepted). Even the deepest disagreements on these issues rarely pit people against each other in a way that seems irresolvable, or which forces incompatible first principles to do public battle.
All of this is ironic, because the vast majority of what the federal government does, even today, has nothing to do with the moral and religious issues that seem to inflame people more than anything else. The 99 percent of government business that is bland and inoffensive is railroaded by the 1 percent that is the opposite. This has been a boon to both parties, which have figured out how to weaponize these sentiments to win elections, but it is disastrous for our country and for the normal functioning of our political system. In the process of electorally enriching themselves our parties have contributed to the shredding of the civic fabric.
The economic nationalism of Donald Trump and the economic populism of Bernie Sanders did, for a time, sideline the old culture war dynamic. But as Trump ditches his economic nationalism for nativism, and as the mainstream Democrats double down on identity politics, we’re not going to get a chance for relief at least until 2020.
When that next election does come, our president—whoever he or she is—should for his or her tenure say goodbye to the energy expended on moral debates in politics, and the feelings of paranoia, marginalization, and embattlement that such debates have fostered on both sides. Let’s direct more of our limited political capital toward those (relatively few) policy areas in which the federal government can actually help build civic consensus and serve the American people.
Addison Del Mastro is assistant editor for The American Conservative. He tweets at @ad_mastro.