TCS Daily

Are There "Two Americas"?

By Paul J. Cella - February 10, 2004 12:00 AM

John Edwards may or may not win the Democratic presidential nomination, but either way I want to record nonetheless how appalling his standard "two Americas" stump speech really is.

Sen. Edwards, in his usual campaign speech, engages in a rambling, dulcified harangue about "two health care systems," "two governments," "two tax systems," etc. The point of this rhetoric, of course, is to present himself as a champion of the oppressed people against what amounts to an oligarchy. Edwards is hardly an innovator in this territory, but it is his very insouciance that appalls. Or rather, it is the insouciance of its reception by everyone else.

The simplest way to state the problem is thusly: If we are in fact two Americas, then we are no longer America. If it is true that wealth inequality, and a disparity in the enjoyment of luxury, has riven us from one people into two, then the American proposition has succumbed to fatal decay. The Union is broken.

For at the heart of this proposition is a consensus, a commitment by We the People (us the people, if we insist on good grammar), as one people, to certain public truths. "We hold these truths." We constitute ourselves one people by committing to these truths: Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. (What is happiness? an assiduous observer might interpose. Let us take Aristotle's definition then: "prosperity combined with virtue.") It is not that our understanding of these truths can never change, or that the consensus never adjusts itself to new circumstances. No: the consensus is in fact an ongoing argument, a dialectical process even, whereby we as citizens deliberate, through our elected representatives and in public argument, about the refinement and perfection of the truths that we hold.

For example, many of us hold out faith that one day the "deliberate sense of the people," as The Federalist puts it, will be refined in such a way that our sense of justice will emphatically exclude any toleration for the evil of abortion. In short, we are locked in argument, as a people, but our argument is anchored in certain truths to which we are committed.

The Preamble to our Constitution provides perhaps the clearest articulation of our consensus available:

WE THE PEOPLE of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this CONSTITUTION for the United States of America.

There it is, the consensus: laid out in a single elegant sentence. Certain things we deem to be good: unity, justice, tranquility, liberty, etc. And we are one in deeming them good.

But Sen. Edwards tells us that rather we are two: and that we no longer know what is good. For the clear implication of his "two Americas" oratory is that the one America -- the oligarchy, the luxurious and unaccountable elite -- does not share with the other America a conception of what is good, else it would not refuse them their due. In fact, digging deeper into the implications, one must assume that the one America (again, the oligarchy) has little conception of good aside from its own interest, in the service of which it clutches at the instruments of government with cunning and ferocity.

And on the other hand, the other America, which is barred access to its government by the "special interests and their lobbyists in Washington," has legitimate demands that are not being met. Here things get a little hazy, for it is not clear why the other America's demands hold claim to some higher law than interest or desire. In other words, it is not clear why the fact that, for example, some Americans receive marginally inferior health care in comparison to the wealthiest Americans (but far superior health care in comparison to the vast bulk of the human race, dead or alive) -- it is not clear why this fact impeaches the justice of our political system so grievously. Or again: it is not clear why tax cuts that mostly benefit those who pay most of the taxes, viz., the wealthy, constitute a similarly grievous stain on our system.

In short, it is not clear how Sen. Edwards' litany of small claims, which he arranges in a declamatory manner in adopting the posture of the populist, could possibly comprise an indictment against this country so severe as to justify raising the specter of Disunion. Let the record show, as Edwards the attorney might put it, that the last time we were in fact two Americas, the last time our consensus as We the People was shattered, we were plunged into a bloody civil war, and the city from which I write was burned to the ground by one Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman.

Perhaps the alert reader has discerned my intent: For I fear that Mr. Edwards may be right -- righter than he knows. The truth is that the mere fact that politicians, much less aspiring presidential candidates, can go about casually behaving as if the lack of a nationalized health care system is sufficient cause for subtly questioning the very legitimacy of the United States Government (another Democratic candidate, now the frontrunner, once openly -- though, admittedly, in a sort of jest -- called for a "regime change" here in America, the regime in question being the Bush administration), is compelling evidence that the solemn consensus grounding the American project is debased.

Though it pains me to say it, there may indeed be the germ at least, of Two Americas: One which regards our founding consensus as something almost sacred, as the hinge on which everything political here turns, and one which admits of no consensus, which recoils from the very idea of a public philosophy signified by phrases such as "we hold these truths," which has put philosophy at the service of politics, and politics at the service of power, and thus hastens the day when both philosophy and politics will be destroyed. Sen. Edwards, then, does not decry the advent of Two Americas; he reveals and advances it.


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