It seems like America’s culture war is reaching a fever pitch. Politics has become a grudge match between the reactionary right and the radical left, and trust in government is at an all-time low. Many are looking for extreme solutions. In February, for instance, U.S. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA) called for a “national divorce.”
In their wisdom, the American Founders foresaw the danger of this kind of division. They knew that human nature would lead to disagreement and disunity in a country as large as the United States. And, what’s more, they built safeguards into our constitutional system to mitigate the effects of a cultural war between citizens with competing views.
Unfortunately, political centralization and the rise of bureaucracy have eroded those safeguards. As politics becomes more and more national, the culture wars have become more and more intense because the stakes get higher and higher. To break this vicious cycle, it is essential that Americans understand the theory of self-government behind the original U.S. Constitution – and that they fight to restore it to the system today.
Above all, the threat to liberty the Founders feared the most was faction. In Federalist 10, Publius defines a faction as “a number of citizens, whether amounting to a majority or minority of the whole, who are united and actuated by some common impulse of passion, or of interest, adverse to the rights of other citizens, or to the permanent and aggregate interests of the community.” Examining the history of earlier republics, Publius said that all of them failed because one faction or another governed without regard for the common good.
Culture war combatants on the right and the left both have the character of faction. Extremists are not concerned with what Americans have in common; they only care about what stokes division. The most totalizing partisans in both parties care little for persuasion; they would rather seize the levers of power for themselves.
The Constitution, Publius says, has two innovative solutions to the problem of faction: “extending the sphere” and the “separation of powers.”
In Federalist 10, Publius suggests that the United States’ great size will itself be a safeguard against factional tyranny. In small republics, factions are fewer, and it is therefore easier to out-compete rivals. The history of ancient Greece and Rome is littered with examples of small “petty republics” that fell apart due to this infighting. What makes America different, Publius says, is that it is much, much larger. There are more factions to compete with one another, and it is therefore difficult for a single faction to rise to the top.
As Publius puts it in his essay, “Extend the sphere, and you take in a greater variety of parties and interests; you make it less probable that a majority of the whole will have a common motive to invade the rights of other citizens; or if such a common motive exists, it will be more difficult for all who feel it to discover their own strength, and to act in unison with each other.”
The federal character of this “extended sphere” also allows citizens to choose to live in the kind of society they favor. If someone dislikes the strict gun laws of their native Maryland, they can move to Texas with more freedom. If a person disagrees with the conservative history curriculum adopted by Florida’s education system, she can move to the more liberal Massachusetts. In an “extended sphere,” there is no real need for a culture war.
But the efficacy of the “extended sphere” relies on the separation of powers.
Instead of concentrating all power in one branch of government, which a faction can easily capture, the framers of the Constitution divided power horizontally — between the branches of the federal government — and vertically — between the federal government and the states. No faction, Publius believes, can secure enough branches of this divided sovereignty to actually oppress another.
In no small part, the stakes of the culture war have grown so great because Washington has ignored the wisdom of this design. Beginning with the progressive movement of the early 20th century, ambitious politicians and bureaucrats accumulated more and more power over the daily lives of Americans. D.C. assumed responsibilities previously left up to the states.
Now the federal government is using all this concentrated power to rule over aspects of society the framers never envisioned would be under its purview. The federal Department of Education, for instance, spent over $637 billion in the 2022 fiscal year. At the time of the Founding, such a figure would have been unthinkable — because the Founders’ never thought education was a responsibility of the federal government.
There is also an imbalance in who gets to make the laws. In 2022, federal agencies passed about 3,168 new regulations. They issued a similar number in both 2021 and 2020. Congress, by contrast, passed just 281 new laws in the same year. The people’s elected representatives are not ruling —unelected bureaucrats are.
Public figures — at both the state and federal levels — ought to be concerned with the intense partisanship of this political moment. They should be doing what they can to tone down their rhetoric, humanize their opponents, and avoid extremism. But those solutions are only temporary.
If Americans really want to put an end to the culture war, we will need to recover an older, more limited form of government. Members of Congress will need to take back their lawmaking responsibilities from the bureaucracy, and states will need to reassert their constitutional authorities. Restoring federalism may seem like a daunting task, but returning to the original intent of the Constitution is the only way Americans can preserve self-government.
Michael Lucchese is the founder of Pipe Creek Consulting, a communications firm based in Washington, D.C. Previously, he was a communications aide to Sen. Ben Sasse. He graduated from Hillsdale College in 2018 and, in 2017, was a political studies fellow at the Hudson Institute. His writing has also been published in the Washington Examiner, National Review, and other outlets.