From Hillsdale College “Imprimis”
February 2020 • Volume 49, Number 2
“The Roots of Our Partisan Divide” by Christopher Caldwell
American society today is divided by party and by ideology in a way it has perhaps not been since the Civil War.
The first strand of this story involves the Vietnam War.
almost half of American men were in a college or university, and student deferment remained in effect until well into the war.
So if you were rich enough to study art history, you went to Woodstock and made love.
If you worked in a garage, you went to Da Nang and made war.
This produced a class division that many of the college-educated mistook for a moral division, particularly once we lost the war.
The rich saw themselves as having avoided service in Vietnam not because they were more privileged or—heaven forbid—less brave, but because they were more decent.
The second strand of the story involves women.
Today, there are two cultures of American womanhood—the culture of married women and the culture of single women.
If you poll them on political issues, they tend to differ diametrically.
It was feminism that produced this rupture.
For women during the Kennedy administration, by contrast, there was one culture of femininity, and it united women from cradle to grave:
Ninety percent of married women and 87 percent of unmarried women believed there was such a thing as “women’s intuition.”
Only 16 percent of married women and only 15 percent of unmarried women thought it was excusable in some circumstances to have an extramarital affair.
Ninety-nine percent of women, when asked the ideal age for marriage, said it was sometime before age 27.
None answered “never.”
The third strand of the story, running all the way down to our day, is by far the most important for explaining our partisan polarization.
It concerns how the civil rights laws of the 1960s, and particularly the Civil Rights Act of 1964, divided the country.
They did so by giving birth to what was, in effect, a second constitution, which would eventually cause Americans to peel off into two different and incompatible constitutional cultures.
This became obvious only over time.
It happened so slowly that many people did not notice.
It was widely assumed that the civil rights enforcement mechanisms would be temporary and narrowly focused.
But they soon escaped democratic control altogether, and they have now become the most powerful part of our governing system.
The civil rights legislation of 1964 and 1965 gave Washington an unprecedented concentration of power and legislative tools it had never before had in peacetime.
It created new crimes, outlawing discrimination in almost every walk of public and private life.
It revoked—or repealed—the prevailing understanding of freedom of association as protected by the First Amendment.
It established agencies to hunt down these new crimes—an expanded Civil Rights Commission, an Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), and various offices of civil rights in the different cabinet agencies.
It gave government new prerogatives, such as laying out hiring practices for all companies with more than 15 employees, filing lawsuits, conducting investigations, and ordering redress.
Above all, it exposed every corner of American social, economic, and political life to direction from bureaucrats and judges.
It sat uneasily, however, not only with the First Amendment, but with the Constitution as a whole.
The Voting Rights Act of 1965, passed largely to give teeth to the 14th Amendment’s guarantee of equal rights for all citizens, did so by creating different levels of rights for citizens of southern states like Alabama and citizens of northern states like Michigan when it came to election laws.
If the spirit of the law was to humiliate Southern bigots, the letter of the law put the entire country—all its institutions—under the threat of lawsuits and prosecutions for discrimination.
The problem is that when the work of the civil rights legislation was done—when de jure segregation was stopped—these new powers were not suspended or scaled back or reassessed.
On the contrary, they intensified.
The ability to set racial quotas for public schools was not in the original Civil Rights Act, but offices of civil rights started doing it, and there was no one strong enough to resist.
Busing of schoolchildren had not been in the original plan, either, but once schools started to fall short of targets established by the bureaucracy, judges ordered it.
Affirmative action was a vague notion in the Civil Rights Act.
But by the time of the Supreme Court’s 1978 Bakke decision, it was an outright system of racial preference for non-whites.
Over time, In fact, the Supreme Court institutionalized affirmative action programs, mandating “diversity”—a new concept at the time—as the law of the land.
Finally, civil rights came to dominate—and even overrule—legislation that had nothing to do with any of the civil rights of American citizens.
The most traumatic example of this was the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986.
Civil rights law had made it impossible for Americans to get what they could ever vote for through their representatives, leading to decades of political strife over immigration policy that continues to this day.
These policies, qua policies, have their defenders and their detractors.
The important thing for our purposes is how they were established and enforced.
More and more areas of American life have been withdrawn from voters’ democratic control and delivered up to the bureaucratic and judicial emergency mechanisms of civil rights law.
Civil rights law has become a second constitution, with powers that can be and are used to override the Constitution of 1787.
In order to justify its special powers, the government created a class of officially designated malefactors.
Every intervention in the name of rights requires the identification of a malefactor.
As other groups were given the privilege of advancing their causes through interventions by bureaucratic fiat and judicial decree, there was the possibility of a gradual building up of vast new coalitions, maybe even electoral majorities.
This was made possible because almost anyone who was not a white heterosexual male could benefit from civil rights law in some way.
Gradually, it even made being white a political tool to punish the majority of citizens in the United States in a way they could never be under the Constitution of 1787.
So overpowering is the hegemony of the civil rights constitution of 1964 over the Constitution of 1787, that the country naturally sorts itself into various parties of those who have benefited by it and the parties of those who have been harmed by it that typically-almost always-included males, whites, Christians, and conservatives.
The progressives are always on the attack and always choose to ignore or deny how delicate a system a democratic constitutional republic is, how difficult it is to get the formula right, and how hard it is to see when a government begins—slowly, very slowly—to veer off course in a way that can take decades to become evident.