The fundamental character of a representative democracy is that although disputes are inevitable, what holds the country together is not a uniformity of opinion, but rather a common commitment to a process in which all sides are able to participate in open debate through our representatives who work out a resolution.
Sometimes through negotiation/give-and take, a consensus can emerge that a substantial majority find acceptable - in which case the dispute is stably settled for a lengthy time.
At other times, the differences cannot be gapped, and we end up with winners and losers.
The point is that the losers respect the process and know that they will have another chance to make their case and perhaps end up with a result more to their liking. The winners (if they are sensible) in turn refrain from cockiness and gloating and rubbing salt in the wounds because they know (like our medieval ancestors) that the wheel of fortune turns, that political and philosophical tides can and do turn, that a pendulum swings both ways - and they may end up on the losing side sometime in the future.
Or perhaps over time, the losers will see some wisdom in the winners' position (and/or vice-versa) and a new consensus can come to fruition.
Thus this mutual allegiance to the representative process - coupled with humility by winners and hope for losers - is what forms the glue that has created stable governance for over 200 years. Of course, we still bear the wounds of some of the grievous splits that arose in the past.
The second characteristic unique to the U.S. is the combination of a federal system and a host of checks and balances, the goal of which is to keep decision-making at the lowest level possible (closest to the local community as possible) and to also prevent the rise of a too-powerful central government that will crush local governance, and ultimately result in tyranny.
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So much for the civics lesson; what does this have to do with 2009 and the divisions over social issues (and to a lesser extent over defense issues) that the Republican Party faces, you might ask?
Everything: if our process of representative democracy and limited government is allowed to be swallowed up by dictatorship, one-party rule, an all-powerful government, and the abrogation of the rights guaranteed by our Constitution against government control, then it doesn't matter which side "wins" or "loses" on the specific issue, everyone has lost. Once arbitrary government rules, nothing is safe for long; everything depends on the whims of those who hold power for the moment.
And with the Democratic hegemony of our Federal government - right now Congress and the Presidency, with the judiciary within their grasp - our 200+-year system of governance faces its gravest threat.
At the same time, it opens an opportunity for Republicans to rally around a new compact rooted around preserving our system of governance, preserving the process of resolving conflict that our nation was founded upon - a process which our Democratic opponents seek to sweep away in their desire for unaccountable control that would substitute force and governmental coercion for debate and liberty.
It is a compact for small government and fiscal restraint that at this point in history must be the glue that holds the Republican Party together.
*A commitment to restrain the tyranny of the courts that would transmute "rights" from our protection from government into a tool for irreversible governmental intrusion and coercion. Indeed, we see how such judicial intervention has inflamed and polarized our nation by preventing debate and negotiation and consensus-building over time (as in the abortion and gay marriage issues, for instance).
*A commitment to arbitrate disputes via the legislative process (or plebiscite where that option is available and utilized) rather than running to the courts to circumvent this process by creating a new "right" that become the basis for more coercion. And not just arbitrate other people's issues but to also arbitrate the issues that we hold dear.
*A renewed commitment to halt the current massive expansion of our Federal government - and not merely halt but to shrink the scope and power and size of our Federal government by returning to the states (and in turn to local government as appropriate) or private entities authority over issues that they are best qualified to resolve.
Carrying out this commitment specifically must include a ruthless pruning of governmental agencies and a drastic reduction in the number of government employees as a tangible and measurable means towards restoring the proper balance between the Federal government and the states (and local governments).
*A commitment to recognize once again that fundamentally taxes do not belong to the government, but rather that they are property of the taxpayers with which the government has been entrusted as stewards. This commitment must be fleshed out by reducing Federal taxes, in line with reducing its size and powers.
*A commitment to end "beggar they neighbor" policies that redistribute tax revenues among states (this covers pork and other such abuses) and instead to leave these revenues in the hand of the states and ultimately the citizenry and other entities who are the source of said revenue.
*A commitment to oppose those who would advocate and work for the opposite.
Within our compact, let us have our debates over defense/foreign policy; let us make our cases for our passionately-held social issues like abortion and the protection and nurturing of life, or even gay marriage. Disagreement is the strength, not the weakness. The point is to have a common commitment to the process, so that at the end of the day, we are still in community. Let not the losers stalk out; let not the winners cast out the losers - because that which binds us together is stronger than the disputes of the day - or at least needs to be.
And that which binds us together is a common commitment to preserving our individual freedoms and as well as the creation of necessary government for common purposes (e.g. defense, domestic tranquility, transmission of our system to our descendents), and for other purposes that we together make voluntary choices to carry out within our Constitutional framework.
I recognize that conservatism is like a stool that has three (or perhaps four) legs - and that we need all legs to be strong. But each age has its particular exigencies, in which one leg may be acutely threatened with destruction by outside enemies and thus needs to be preferentially defended. And in such an hour, we need to find common cause.
C.S. Lewis gave us this wonderful image in his Screwtape Letters (XXV). Speaking of the design of the Enemy, he writes:
We direct the fashionable outcry of each generation against those vices of which it is least in danger and fix its approval on the virtue nearest to that vice which we are trying to make endemic. The game is to have them running about with fire extinguishers whenever there is a flood, and all crowding to that side of the boat which is already nearly gunwale under... Cruel ages are put on their guard against Sentimentality, feckless and idle ones against Respectability, lecherous ones against Puritanism; and whenever all men are really hastening to be slaves or tyrants we make Liberalism the prime bogey.
(By Liberalism, I am confident that Lewis is referring to its classical variant that nurtured our nation's founding and is a root of today's conservatism, not its modern day bastard child.)
So facing the Democratic tsunami of tyranny that is rapidly approaching at full speed, we need to put down our fire extinguishers for the moment and address the impending flood.
Our window of freedom is fast closing. Let us stay anchored to the Rock.