The 13 American Arguments by Howard Fineman

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Why Americans love to argue and what we can do about it.

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America isn’t a nation, it is rather a never-ending series of ongoing arguments that we’ve been discussing since 1776. Rather than see this as a bad thing, Howard Fineman a former journalist, believes if Americans better understood these fundamental arguments we’d have more productive conversations on them.

1. Who is a Person?

Who gets full protection under the law?

Whether it is the Pro Life debate, immigration, slavery, or new genetic research, the definition for who exactly a person is under American law doesn’t stay put. In the 1700s African slaves on the Spanish slave ship, The Amistad argued successfully in court that they were indeed full persons under colonial law. For Pro Life and Pro Choice debaters where does a mother’s right to control her body end and the fetus’s right to life begin? Today, take transgender and LGBTQ rights: How can we ensure LGBTQ community members are entitled to full protection under the law with things like marriage, health insurance, restroom usage, clothing stores and so on. Personhood is dynamic and doesn’t stay still for long in the U.S.

2. Who is an American?

Do we need to offer the same rights to non-Americans?

At what point do you cease to an immigrant and begin to be an American? Under the 14th Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause all persons within the United States are entitled to full protection under the law, but how should this apply to those who find themselves on U.S. soil and are not U.S. citizens? Should families in Texas have their tax payer dollars go to ensuring an equal education of children who are not citizens of the U.S.? The debate at the U.S.-Mexico Southwest border, Zero Tolerance policies, family separation reflect that this unanswered question still tears at the heart of our nation.

But this is nothing new: it has been quite normal for the most recent wave of immigrants into the U.S. to be the first ones to close the door on the next. The English didn’t like the Germans, the Germans didn’t like the Irish, the Irish didn’t like the Italians, the Italians didn’t like the Chinese/Japanese, and earlier waves of Hispanic immigration have been some of the most vocal critics of allowing undocumented immigrants into the U.S. They did it legally so why shouldn’t others?

3. Are We A Christian or Secular Nation?

Where exactly is the line between the separation of church and state?

What is the role that religion should play in American life? Where does the role of religion stop and the role of politics begin? Should congressional leaders be allowed to pray openly before a session of congress? Can you pray in school? Should Satanists in Oklahoma City be allowed to erect a statue to Lucifer across the street from a statue to the Ten Commandments? Should you be allowed to pull your own tax dollars to pay for your child’s education at a private evangelical school instead of the local public school?

4. The Group vs. The Individual

Where does your right as an individual end and everyone else’s begin?

Should your kid be allowed to go to school with F word on their t-shirt? Should you be allowed to be out in public despite COVID19 health concerns? Should be allowed, like Joe Tiger, to run and operate your own exotic cats zoo park in the middle of nowhere Oklahoma if you want to? Should far right conspiracy theorists be allowed to speak at liberal universities and be given a platform to voice their extremist opinions? Should the KKK be allowed to organize? Should Black Panthers be allowed to patrol their own neighborhoods with their own guns? Or, how about the Westboro Baptist Church protesting homosexuality at the funerals of dead soldiers?

At what point does an individual’s fundamental right to freedom of expression end and everyone else’s right to not be offended begin? Is it possible we’ve gone too far or not far enough?

5. Local vs. National Authority (Federalism)

Who the heck is in charge?

The inaction that plagued the U.S. in the early days of COVID19 wasn’t a system being broken but one working as intended. The Founding Framers of the constitution needed a novel way to balance local and national power — remember it was a tyrannical English King who gave them cause to revolt in the first place. Instead of answering this question, they instead decided to create an endless debate. Enter the Supremacy Clause and the 10th Amendment.

The Supremacy Clause states that when a state and national law conflict, the national law wins out.

The 10th Amendment states that if the national government wasn’t specifically given a particular power, it automatically resides with the state.

Marijuana wasn’t mentioned in the Constitution, so states like Colorado claim it is their right to legalize it while the federal government cites the Supremacy Clause as a way to shut it down. Gay marriage, assault weapons, gun control, health care and LGBTQ rights all too showcase this tension between states wanting to do their own thing and the federal government continually attempting to reign them in.

6. Is The President A King?

Why the government wasn’t designed for high speed internet.

Government was not designed to operate at lightening speed. In fact, it was deliberately designed by James Madison to slow down the inertia of the “uneducated mobs”. Congress is designed to operate at a very slow pace as a stop-gap measure against violent and tumultuous change taking place. But world has sped up a lot making Congress seem ever slower. As a way to circumvent Congress’s lethargy, Presidents (Democrats and Republicans alike) have utilized executive orders and presidential power to take action. For example, Obama and Trump have used executive orders to launch drone strikes on terrorist targets in the past ten year, but the power of war lies only with Congress. They’ve also both used executive orders to change how an already existing law is enforced which some argue is effectively creating a new law — something only Congress is allowed to do. How much power is too much?

7. Made In America

Who is responsible for your economic well-being?

American manufacturing isn’t coming back, at least not in the way Obama and Trump would like us to believe. Why would a corporation keep its operations in a country where the minimum wage is $15/hr when they could move to a country like Mexico where it is much, much less? Conservative believe in rugged individualism — that your own economic well-being is your own responsibility. Liberals believe in a watered down version of socialism where your government is responsible for your well-being. The irony of all this is that most young liberals turn into conservatives once they begin making money and most older conservatives are over reliant upon those same socialist programs like social security that they lamented when they were younger.

Is it fair to tax the wealthy to subsidize the poor? Is it fair for the middle class to pay more in taxes than the wealthy? Does cutting taxes increase economic activity? Does increasing government spending increase economic activity?

We agree we should help the poor, we just disagree vastly on how to do it.

8. Going Green

Is the environment there to serve us or should we serve it?

Are we caretakers or butchers? America still has vast untapped resources given its population, but how do you balance the need for economic growth with the need for environmental protection? Can you always trust for-profit companies to make decisions beyond their quarterly profits? At the same time, is it wise to keep our current dependence on foreign oil in unstable regions of the world strong just to spare our own environment from development? Is global climate change a slow-motion catastrophe or an economic opportunity? Is it both?

While we’ve largely been able to reduce our dependency on the Middle East at least for natural gas, it has come at a complicated environmental cost via technique like hydrofracking. Wealthy educated protestors will stand outside the homes of farmers who just signed over the drilling rights to their lands, but where were those wealthy educated people when these farmers lost their jobs, had to kill off half their herds or fell into drug abuse because they couldn’t make a living?

10. What Can We Know And Say?

Should you be allowed to release classified government intel?

Pre 9/11 most courts would have the backs of journalists looking to publish stories that involved leaked documents. Post 9/11 the courts were not as friendly to this — and still largely are not. How are you supposed to balance everyone’s right to freedom of information while at the same time protecting national security interests? How much information should journalists and the press be allowed to actually know, let alone report on? This was difficult enough when there were only a handful of major newspapers and TV stations and will only become more difficult as information become diffused and decentralized via social media.

11. Debt

The value of U.S.’s money is guaranteed by Uncle Sam

We’ve got a debt problem — about a $25 trillion dollar debt problem. The US dollar’s value used to be tied to the value of gold, but since the 1970s when Nixon took us off the gold standard the value of the dollar has been allowed to “float”. This floating is largely based off of the full strength and guarantee of the U.S. government and it’s military industrial complex. While we might be massively in debt we still patrol the world’s shipping lanes with our aircraft carrier strike groups and use “soft” financial power to box in or coax countries into helping with our international agenda. Yet, as other powers like China make a play to buy up and guarantee U.S. debt what will happen when one day their banks decide to call up their loans to our government?

12. Who Judges The Law?

Why what the law means depended on whose reading it.

We had no plan for the Supreme Court. It’s only mandate was to judge the constitutionality of a law — was the law legal according to the Constitution? But, the Supreme Court’s role has grown more prominent as the effective of Congress has declined. If the Supreme Court says it is illegal to ban Gay Marriage, did it not just create a defacto new law saying implicitly that Gay Marriage is now legal? Should courts be allowed to wield such power?

Should the law be interpreted from the context in which it was written in 1787 or should it be interpreted from the context of today in 2020? Did bearing arms entail the same thing as owning an AR15? Can the government stop and frisk you for suspicious behavior? Does the law ultimately change with the times or should it remain as indifferent as rain changeless providing stability in an ever changing world?

13. A More Perfect Union

America is an ongoing experiment — let’s buckle up.

America is an unresolved argument revolving around one question: What type of nation are we? We’ve had moments of great unity and progress and moments of internal bloodshed such as the Civil War all in service of answering this single question.

The Framers of the Constitution knew this would be an impossible question to answer and figured the best they could hope for was this: continue the debate. Create just enough government structure to ensure order, prosperity and stability but not so much that these arguments can’t be continually revisited.

My language teacher in Ukraine when I was a Peace Corps Volunteer told me a great Russian quote once: Language is the only solution that continues the problem, but at least you’ll understand it a bit better each time.

We may never have a clear cut answer to any of these arguments, but we can better understand the arguments themselves and, in doing so, better understand ourselves.

Summary

Fineman does a great job putting into words the common arguments at the core of nearly every major news story and issue we face in America today. While many pundits lament that America’s glory days are behind it, or our national political conversation is spiraling out of control Fineman’s takes the opposite view — America isn’t different, it’s the same as its ever been. Argument is in our blood. Argument gives American political life and society a vibrancy and dynamism that is largely the reason why have been at the tip of spear of social, political, military and economy innovation. The beauty of America’s Thirteen Arguments is that they are an end in themselves — they have no clear answers. The day these arguments have a clear answer is the day we stop being American.

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