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Friday, May 20, 2011

E Pluribus Unum (One out of Many): Unity without Uniformity

On January 12, 2011, President Obama spoke at the memorial service for the fallen victims of the assassination attempt on Rep. Giffords. “What we can’t do is use this tragedy as one more occasion to turn on each other,” the President said. “That we cannot do. As we discuss these issues, let each of us do so with a good dose of humility.” Had we really been turning on each other? It is as though a bystander had pointed out to two people arguing that they were indeed shouting.  "Were we really shouting?" one might ask the observer in astonishment--to which the observer would nod and add, "You guys might try a bit of humility," rather than, as the President observed, "pointing fingers or assigning blame.” 

The night after the president's speech, I watched Karen Armstrong, the former nun and author of History of God, on the PBS program, Charlie Rose. Armstrong pointed out that discussion in which others' motives are presumed and impugned involve a certain arrogance.  Each of us is a mystery to ourselves, she added.  How can we be so sure of the other partisan's motives? 

Similarly, President Obama said in his speech, “Let us use this occasion to expand our moral imaginations, to listen to each other more carefully, to sharpen our instincts for empathy, and remind ourselves of all the ways that our hopes and dreams are bound together.” Empathy and humility are attributes antipodal to anger and pride. How often are the former two invoked in political discourse? How often are two partisans reminded that they have been turning on each other, in effect?  Are Americans really turning on each other?  Is the house so divided and thus acrimonious?  It could indeed be that we, the American people, have allowed ourselves to be unwittingly drawn into a fight in which the pundits on television and radio benefit financially from the escalation.

I do not believe that we are a warring people intrinsically, though we do seem to be vulnerable to artful and manipulating public figures.  Perhaps we are too readily inclined to engage in hero worship.  Indeed, there could have been some of that involved in the 2008 Presidential election. We do tend not always to rise to the occasion in managing or resolving real differences, whether in campaigns or in voting. Popular sovereignty, our Founders averred, relies on a virtuous and informed electorate. This involves the citizens feeling a sufficient civic duty to take a serious look at real differences and make a solid decision on election-day that reflects their own respective political and moral ideologies. To be sure, fundamental differences do exist.

Paul Krugman, for example, points to a "deep divide in American political morality," in which he believes there is "no middle ground." He takes the health reform law passed in 2010 as a case in point. "One side saw health reform, with its subsidized extension of coverage to the uninsured, as fulfilling a moral imperative: wealthy nations, it believed, have an obligation to provide all their citizens with essential care. The other side saw the same reform as a moral outrage, an assault on the right of Americans to spend their money as they choose." This difference can perhaps be characterized as pitting a moral imperative of a right to life in terms of survival (and the immorality of selfishness) against the moral imperative of property rights (and the immorality of theft via high taxes).  It is no wonder that tempers flared in the debate amid such emotionally-charged language.

Politics involves conflict over things that people hold dear—their values and beliefs. Representative democracy has the beneficial feature whereby relatively cool representatives debate and decide such policy. How quickly the Rights of Man became savage mobs in Paris in 1792. Does liberty translate into a mass of people, out of control and rushing into a prison to disembowel priests and slice limbs off aristocrats? Political discourse can be much worse than that to which President Obama had in mind when he characterized the American people as having been turning on each other. The extent of the "deep divide" in America can, with the aid of human nature, issue in violence, but this need not be, and I contend that we are a too peaceful a people to be led so astray by our passions abetted by media personalities and demagogues.  We may be making it more difficult on ourselves by willowing practically all public policy through the federal government.

We do have fifty republics we can draw on to have the sort of diversity of policy that could reduce the pressure on us to resolve the deep divide into one size as if one way could fit all. However, this solution would require tolerance. Burgess avers that there "is an important moral dimension to federalism, as it is all about toleration, mutual respect, and equality of partnership, amongst other principles" (Burgess, p. 70). For example, people in Idaho who not want government mandated health-care coverage must be willing to tolerate Massachusetts's mandate (and subsidies), and vice versa. With empathy and humility can come tolerance.

We are doing pretty well with religious tolerance, at least relative to historical instances of persecutions. In the seventeenth century, for example, four Quakers were burnt in New England—ostensibly for refusing to pay a church-tax that would go to a church they did not support. In the case of the contemporary uncivil public discourse, perhaps it would help to recognize that one size does not fit all in an empire-scale union--that ironically unum is strengthened precisely by tolerating more pluribus. I suspect this point has been lost on Americans since the founding.

We should not be surprised that there are substantial differences in a country that stretches across a continent and then some. In European terms, we are a union of nations--our states are equivalent in scale and political type (i.e., semi-sovereign political units of a union) to their countries. Accordingly, I contend that the U.S. Government ought to start dealing with those countries at the E.U. level.

In short, perhaps we have turned on each other because we have forgotten what we--the United States--are. Having lost sight of our polities, we have unwittingly suffered our differences to fit into the narrow funnel of uniformity, which we assume is requisite for unity. According to Burgess, “the formal organization of human relations [undergirding federal systems] must be founded upon ‘diversity’ as its cardinal principle. Consequently, we require unity but not uniformity” (Burgess, p. 68).  This is especially applicable where the federal system is on an empire-level.

In effect, we have forgotten the meaning of e pluribus unum; we have lost touch with what we are. Perhaps our angry public discourse is in part an eruption of our own subterranean angst, whose existential source is simply a hazy sense of being lost or adrift in some way. One cannot but be lost if one has forgotten what one is. We have forgotten that we, the U.S., are a union of republics that are commensurate to European countries. 

Sandra Day O'Conner once remarked at a small group setting, "Congress is acting like a state legislature." Evidently, Congress had forgotten what it is. If a person or group loses touch with what they intrinsically are, it likely won't be long before the wayward ship runs up against a reef. So it is only natural to feel a sense of angst while adrift without a sense of what one is. The tenor of our public discourse is merely a symptom. The question is whether we will treat it as such and dive deeper to get at the real problem, which lies in our own lack of understanding of what we are.

Click to add a question or comment (or view comments) on whether uniformity through the federal government is necessary for unity in the U.S.A.


Paul Krugman, “A Tale of Two Moralities,” The New York Times, January 13, 2011.

Burgess, Michael, “Federalism and federation,” in European Union Politics, Michelle Cini, ed. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003), pp. 65-79.