While I see abundant news stories that cover accusations and counter-accusations, proposals and counter-proposals, demonstrations and counter-demonstrations, all of these details ... this minutiae of monument closings, people forced from national parks, and rotting vegetables in the White House garden ... either miss or ignore a central issue that lies at the heart of this conflict.
Our American culture is more fragmented and polarized than perhaps at any other time since the Civil War 150 years ago. What we face today even might represent an American population even more fundamentally divided in its dreams and aspirations than it was during the Civil War, and here's why.
As the Union started pulling itself apart in 1860 along regional north-and-south lines, the antagonists essentially were in agreement about the nature of government: it was there essentially to nurture an equality of opportunity. Few people at the time argued over the fundamental role of government. The sticking point was one side allowed slavery and the other didn't. With the eventual abolishment of slavery at the war's close, there wasn't anything serious enough left to fight about, and we've had relative domestic peace for a century and a half.
Today it's different. We have a population in disagreement over how and why the government should exist. One the one hand we have segments who believe the government's role is to nurture individual initiative, encourage private business, and the aid the individual's ability to reap the rewards of his own work.
Government shutdown reduces military contracting, increasing pressure on U.S. defense industry
Defense industry will emerge from these hard times stronger than ever
The sequester hits! Is everyone okay?
On the other hand we have those who believe that government's role is to guarantee not only equal opportunity, but also equality of outcome -- that is, a sharing of wealth to ensure that everyone has a fair share, and that no one has to do without.
The notion of fairness is a central component of this great American divide as we push into the 21st century. An economic system based on individual initiative is not fair in terms of outcome, but it's fair in terms of opportunity. Results in this system, however, are not fair at all. We have vastly different economic strata from very rich to very poor. People drive different cars and live in different sized houses. There are winners and losers, in other words. Should the government stand back and let this happen, or intervene on behalf of the less fortunate?
A vast segment of the American population sees a system of winners and losers as unacceptable. How is it that anyone should be poor when there are those with great wealth? Why is it that the United States uses the lion's share of Earth's energy resources when some around the world don't even have electric lights? Why should some people have access to the best of medical care when others are relegated to crowded hospital emergency rooms? It's not fair, they point out, and something should be done about it. To these people, it is the role of government to determine what is fair for all, and mandate procedures on how to get there.
Both sides are passionate in their beliefs. Those who champion individual initiative point to the economic vitality of a culture encouraged to work hard, take risks, come up with new solutions, and invent new things. Those who promote economic equality maintain that a culture without want or envy enables each individual to be his best.
Viewed in this way, how can we claim with certainty which side is right and which side is wrong? What's clear, however, is many on each side today would be willing to die for their beliefs if pressed by circumstances to do so.
We as a nation in the 21st century are not all on the same page; far from it, and we're drifting farther and farther apart. We see isolated voices pleading for good-faith bargaining and compromise, but I wonder if it's too late for that. We as Americans have been focusing on what divides us rather than on what unites us for a very long time -- longer than most of us can remember.
History tells us, however, that once a nation's population divides itself on ideological lines far enough, and for long enough, that there's no going back. The strain becomes too great, and the most trivial of events can push things past the breaking point.
Although Americans have a long shared history, I wonder if we have reached this breaking point. Is this government shutdown just an isolated incident, or is it a harbinger of much more ominous things to come?
With this in mind, shall we continue arguing over who's right and who's wrong, and keep proposing solutions in direct conflict with one another? At what moment do we realize, finally, that we're playing with matches in a fireworks factory?