Let a thousand cultures bloom.

Ah, the modern culture wars… Abortion, gay marriage, porn, public nudity, the low-rider pants thing… all the flashpoints where traditional moral values meet civil liberties.

It’s weird — to me, a heretic — that Americans constantly argue over this stuff, as if there could ever be a day when one side “wins” and the other graciously concedes, and we all pull together according to some sustainable common purpose. The social libertarians have won most of the battles since WW2, and dominate policy in the most important parts of the country, yet social conservatives have refused to concede. And, really, few people are satisfied with the situation, as the following chart from Pew Global shows. Note that the satisfaction measures fail to track GDP growth — because the problem goes deeper than economics.

What bugs me about the people who want to end the culture wars, or who think the culture wars might soon end on their own (only three years ago there were op-eds about how President Obama’s election would end them!) is that they don’t even consider an obvious solution: let people live in cultures of their choosing, and give them enough cultures to choose from.

It used to be that when a group of people were fed up with their social environment, and were feeling sufficiently righteous, yet were too small in number to take over, they would up stakes, pile their stuff in wagons, and hit the road — or make a road — and ultimately form their own mostly-autonomous communities. Much of the US was settled by such people.

Now of course, there’s nowhere to go — except maybe to virtual web-based communities, which are problematic in a number of ways.

In principle, large enough majorities can revise state constitutions and even the federal one as they like. But in practice, state and national populations are too culturally heterogeneous, and so no one would trust the outcome of such a process, and thus it could never get started. If government derives its legitimacy from the consent of the governed, then to many US citizens the federal government must seem illegitimate. Again, note the figures in the graph above. Most of us are not happy.

Obviously there would be pitfalls involved in, for example, freeing the states to do as they like, and freeing Americans to sort themselves out in the cultures that suit them. Some people would not like the directions that certain states (or other groupings) take. Some would equate a modern movement for political and cultural devolution with the “States rights” attitude of the Confederacy and the Jim Crow South — and would appeal to the spirit of Lincoln, who “preserved the Union.” Some would be concerned mainly with the economic difficulties of such a change. Some would claim that Evolution drives us into ever-larger groupings, so there can be no turning back.

But after all we are only human: We have a basic need to live in communities with a certain level of mutual trust. Surely a large part of our present dissatisfaction comes from a lack of social trust — plus a deep lack of trust in government — and an attendant lack of any shared high purpose. Our meaningful political units now also seem too big; devolution would mean smaller-scale, more manageable politics.

Even if, at present, this idea of political and cultural devolution is generally blanked from the American mind, I think it will be openly discussed quite soon. A breakup of at least some of the European monetary union seems imminent, and Scotland within two years will choose whether to secede from Great Britain — and perhaps Quebec eventually will manage to secede from Canada. When such things happen, among civilized peoples and without civil war, Americans will notice.


Previous posts on this general topic:

The EMU and the Supercommittee

Goodbye to Politics (as we know it)

E Pluribus Pluribus

The Real Media Bias

Restoring Honor, Maintaining Confusion