21st century's Great Divide
Wednesday, May 12, 2010
By Beth Cody, Writer's Group member
Iowa City Press-Citizen

Attending Iowa City's local anti-tax, anti-government-spending Tea Party rally last month confirmed what I have become aware of in the past year or so: That America is becoming an increasingly divided country.

I have even begun to refer to this as our Great Divide: over our fundamental beliefs about the role of government.

Disagreement over the purpose of government underlies nearly every issue: the economy, health care, the environment, wars and terrorism, our civil liberties, immigration, same-sex marriage.

The rally displayed, on a local level, the Divide between those who mostly advocate reduced government spending (the Tea Partiers) and those who promote increased government programs, entitlements and government jobs and benefits (the rally's counter-protesters, mostly unionized government employees, who felt compelled to show up to protest in favor of their own benefits).

The Divide, broken down:

? I would guess that probably a third of Americans strongly believe that individual freedom, smaller government, fewer laws, lower taxes and less debt would benefit our country.
? Conversely, probably another third believes strongly that government should (and can) solve most of our problems, even if it requires higher taxes (at least on "the rich") and that government should control people more, for their own good.
? In the middle third lies a group that probably doesn't want to think about it.

Our country is certainly becoming more polarized: Hundreds of thousands are attending anti-government-spending protests, Obamacare has outraged and frightened millions of people, our perpetual wars – on terrorism, drug use, etc. – are accelerating the destruction of our liberties, and alarm over our government's unsustainable spending and unrepayable debt is at an all-time high.

Now, Americans have long disagreed about politics and government. But the stakes are now much higher: more people have come to rely on government for well-paid employment and superior benefits, entitlement payments, profitable government contracts and beneficial regulations. I suspect that nearly half our population now directly benefits from these.

Consequently, the tenor of "discussion" between those with vested interests and those who are worried about our future is becoming more strident.

Those advocating spending cuts are beginning to understand that "compromise" is not an option, because compromise always still means increases in spending (just not as much increase as the spenders want), not actual cuts. And concerned citizens aren't just writing letters to the editor anymore: they have taken to protesting in the streets and at local representatives' offices and town hall meetings.

On the other side, some pro-government advocates, instead of using reason to persuade, have tried to distract attention from these issues with vicious accusations of racism, homophobia, general un-Americanism and even terrorism. But these ad-hominem attacks only further inflame the millions of ordinary citizens expressing reasonable concerns about the future of our nation.

Each side now not only believes the other side is wrong, but lamentably foolish, perhaps even evil. These two sides will never, ever agree on anything for very long.

As slavery was the great divisive question of the 19th century that nearly tore our country asunder, I believe that so will the role of government be the Great Divider of the 21st century. And it is possible that the questions will fatally divide us this time.

How much control should the federal government have over our lives? How much of our earnings should we be allowed to keep? How will our children ever repay the monstrous debt we have racked up for our own benefits?

Is there any limit to the number of government employees that are "needed"? Is it right or wrong to force people, using the coercive power of government laws and guns, to pay the superior salaries and benefits of a favored class? Do some people have the right to live at the expense of others?

These are moral questions that might tear our nation apart. Perhaps we should consider our answers sooner rather than later.