Henry Steele Commager in Empire of Reason quotes Alexis de Tocqueville as being "chilled" by the sameness of the young American nation. Political parties rose, succeeded, sparred, and fell. Its geographical sections hotly debated war with Great Britain in 1812. Yet observers saw that the chasms dividing American politics were small.
Americans believed in their Constitution, believed in the representative republic, and also the free market. Even the debate over the Constitution's ratification reflected common concerns about infringements on liberty and dangers to the nation. The United States created a social, economic, and political system based on reason, merit, and experience. It did not save the nation from the unanswerable questions of state versus federal power, or the moral issues of slavery. But it did knit the nation back together after the Civil War. In this generation, however, the foundation has crumbled. The Empire of Reason faces cleavages at its very heart.
America is dividing. Last week, Rutgers University lost its commencement speaker. Former Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice bowed out from the honor due to faculty and student protests. The university that paid Snooki $30,000 (honestly, no disrespect to her for taking the money while she still could) could not handle a talk from one of America's most learned and experienced figures.
Before the Civil War, American institutions started to split. Protestant churches cleaved into northern and southern branches. These served as the foundation of culture, society, and sometimes even learning. Colleges and universities partly fill that role today. As the Left increasingly stifles debate at mainline schools, the best and brightest conservatives and libertarians head to esteemed colleges such as Hillsdale or conservative religious schools. Others disregard college altogether for experience based training and entrepreneurship.
Demographics show that conservatives and liberals increasingly do not even want to live near each other. Reason reported the exodus of conservatives from blue states a year ago. Taxes, regulations, social policies, and other issues drive residents and businesses to friendlier locales. Californians move to Utah or Texas. New York and Maryland firearms manufacturers move to pro gun states.
Americans split over major issues. About half of the country wants government to leave it alone. Another half seeks to impose more controls for everyone's good, as defined by them. A few conservatives are more comfortable with NSA surveillance; a few leftists want government to leave organic farms and pot users alone. By and large, however, this is where the country splits.
The great contests of the past over issues like protectionism, free silver, and even the New Deal did not do this. The first two came from differences of opinion as to what would help America prosper more. The New Deal came as a response to a national emergency and no one articulated an alternative.
The house continues to divide against itself. Either the United States will move one way or the other, or the basic structure of the system will loosen and allow states a lot more latitude, or there is going to be a rumble.