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Civil War or Civil Decline? Can America Save Itself?

Is America about to enter a civil war? Is America in a state of irreversible decline? These are tough questions for Americans, and part of us would like to respond to both: “Heck no!”

Yet even believers in American exceptionalism have to wonder. Freshman Senator Jim Risch (R-ID) laid it on the line in a speech to the Idaho state legislature:

No government has ever survived and no economy has ever survived when the national debt hit 90% of GDP. We will hit 90% in a few years.

Senator Risch, while expressing belief in American exceptionalism, suggested it might have its limits:

Can we survive when no other country has? If Congress doesn’t change its ways, we’re going to find out.

Some might be tempted to dismiss the deep divisions we face as a country with a simple “we’ve had problems before.” Yet the problems we face now are more severe. We face an avalanche of debt, the decline of the family, and cultural divisions perhaps more severe than those America faced in the run-up to the Civil War.

As I see it, there are three potential roads for America to follow:

1. Disunion

America breaking up? It seems far-fetched. Former KGB analyst Igor Panarin thinks this is the year. I wouldn’t bet on 2010, but the possibility of disunion can’t be ignored. Lawrence O’Donnell famously suggested secession after John Kerry lost in 2004. That and the popular Jesusland map both suggest that some on the left would like to take the other half of the country to divorce court.

Today, America is divided, not only by the traditional cultural issues like abortion and same sex marriage, but by the fundamental question of whether we ought to have a paternalistic messiah state that seeks to meet all needs and regulate every affair of life.

America’s Founders understood you could not have a national government trying to make uniform all the customs and laws of places as different as Massachusetts and South Carolina. Yet the federal government has consistently increased its control, laying unfunded mandates on states and localities and using the federal courts to control an ever-widening circle of activities, from marriage laws to what decorations can go in courthouses.

This level of federal control has created tension. Two distinctly different cultural views predominate in our country. One ascending to control invariably leads the other to fear everything it holds dear is about to be devastated by the unruly monster both sides have created. The question, when one looks at disunion, is whether one side will tire of fighting for control of the beast and decide to attempt to escape its grasp.

An actual civil war is unlikely. America was a different place in the 1860s. The population was far more homogeneous, with many folks never having traveled outside their home state. Today, in America, people have moved from all over. The red state and blue state maps fail to capture that there are pockets of liberals and conservatives, secularists and traditionalists, in every region. If there were attempts to secede, the resistance wouldn’t be a northern army marching against the southern rebels, it would be ugly street warfare between neighbors in every state.

If it’s hard to imagine a brother against brother conflict, it’s just as hard to imagine a “peaceful secession” being allowed. Unless America reaches a point of such national impotence, it can’t stop a rebellion in its own borders.

2. Decline

This scenario is happening right now. When people speak of America falling, we picture foreign invasions like in Red Dawn, or we imagine a post-apocalyptic future like in The Postman. Glenn Beck imagines inflation hitting us like the Weimar Republic.

Americans believe if something’s going to knock us down, it’s going to be something grand and massive like Islamofascists taking over or a nuclear holocaust. Yet what is happening is the far more pervasive death that other great powers suffered.

The British Empire is no more, but England still exists as a far weaker power. Four out of five people in the UK declared the nation in moral decline, and a recent YouTube sensation featured MEP Daniel Hannan denouncing Gordon Brown as the “devalued prime minister of a devalued government,” as debt has overrun the British Commonwealth through its unwieldy welfare state.

In ancient times, a declining nation would be overrun by foreign conquerors, but the 21st century is different. Commerce and trade are the order of the day for most nations. Not only is killing your customers bad for business, nation building and empires are expensive enterprises that do nothing to raise your standard of living.

So rather than foreign invasion sending our obese population into guerrilla warfare, the current direction of America is best summed up in Other People’s Money: “Down the tubes. Slow but sure.”

The national actors of our political life have no desire or ability to address the cultural and economic problems leading us to ruin. Social Security is a disaster that has passed into the red, but no one dares to touch it. The federal Department of Education has, in thirty years, succeeded primarily in wasting money, but we can’t abolish it, lest the public think we are against education because we abolished an overbearing federal agency that’s wasting tax money rather than solving problems.

Freedoms in America are declining through a process of curtailing existing liberties and creating brand new “freedoms” out of whole cloth. Americans will always claim to be free, but we may only believe we are free because we don’t know what freedom is. Would America’s Founders think we are a free people if they knew that, in the 21st century, Americans are required to report every penny of income earned and its source? Or if they knew that every citizen is required to purchase a product according to the government’s specifications or else pay a fine? Would they think it's okay that thirteen-year-olds can be transported across state lines to get abortions without parental consent?

The state governments will be little help in reclaiming liberty. When I was running for office in the Republican primary, a Republican stated Medicaid was a good deal for our state because for every dollar we spent, we got three from the federal government -- as if those federal dollars were coming from Fairyland.

There is much saber-rattling about the Tenth Amendment, but do state leaders really want the federal government to stay within its constitutional guidelines? Do they want the federal government to stop spending money on building schools, paying for museums, and subsidizing state and city governments so that these governments can take credit for bringing government money back home without actually having to raise taxes to fund popular projects? Those that clamor for states' rights seek for the federal government to stay within its constitutional bounds only on those issues which the state doesn’t want the federal government to step over the line.

This is the path we’re on: a decreasing amount of opportunity coupled with decreasing personal liberties, with all politicians too self-interested to actually do anything about it. The danger for America is not so much that we will become Nazi Germany or Stalinist Russia, or even Chavez’s Venezuela, but that we will become America the ordinary, a nation no different than any other Western nation, with absurd levels of regulation (such as Sweden’s baby naming law) and incentives to live like the government owes you a living. Will we soon walk on eggshells to avoid being dragged before a human rights commission for offending an atheist, a homosexual, or an Islamic fundamentalist?

3. Restoration

This is the hard road. National decline is a tailspin nations don’t usually pull out of. It is not because decline is physically irreversible, but because it requires a mental toughness that nations in decline usually have lost.

The challenge for American conservatives is to confront the crisis that faces us and do it in a way that rallies the American people behind the idea of saving our republic.

While the reasons for hope are few, they do exist. There’s Governor Chris Christie’s (R-NJ) tireless campaign against government spending. They call him Governor Wrecking Ball, and a wrecking ball is what is needed right now against a welfare state so large and onerous that it threatens to destroy American liberty.

There are millions of Americans who are homeschooling their children and teach them traditional American values. They and others are sending their children to schools like Hillsdale College, Liberty University, Regent University, and Patrick Henry College. These schools are preparing their students to be the leaders of America’s renewal.

Two big questions will decide whether these bright spots will be able to push back the dark clouds. First, will we elect statesmen who realize the need to stop our decline, or will we continue to elect politicians content with politically easy half-measures? Second, will Americans who have emerged on the political landscape remain active?

In Blinded by Might, Cal Thomas urged Christians to retreat from the political arena, as twenty-five years of pro-life activism had failed to yield the overturning of Roe v. Wade. Never mind that twenty-five years is hardly yesterday for political movements seeking long-term change.

I’ve been in rooms where 200 people have loudly pledged to stand firm no matter what and then witnessed that number dwindle to a precious few against the withering force of the political left.

The most important question for the future of our nation could be how many folks who’ve entered the political process are here for the long haul, and how many are only Thomas Paine's “summer soldiers and sunshine patriots.”