Since the 2000 election, we have understood our country as divided between what we have called red states and blue states, that is, conservative and liberal regions. The division between them is not primarily one of geography as it is of moral and political principles. If this were simply a matter of party affiliation, however, it would be relatively uninteresting in the long run. But the country is becoming increasingly aware that the disagreement is fundamental, that our house is divided against itself to such an extent that it cannot stand without a vigorous reaffirmation and defense of its founding principles.
In a recent column, George Will drew national attention to the liberal establishment's principled hostility toward our very form of government:
"Today, as it has been for a century, American politics is an argument between two Princetonians---James Madison, Class of 1771, and Woodrow Wilson, Class of 1879. Madison was the most profound thinker among the Founders. Wilson, avatar of 'progressivism,' was the first president critical of the nation's founding. Barack Obama's Wilsonian agenda reflects its namesake's rejection of limited government."
What Wilson began, the Great Depression interrupted, but Franklin Roosevelt took it up again with great energy in the New Deal. Lyndon Johnson carried it forward with the Great Society, and now Barack Obama has raised this war against limited, constitutional government to the level of mortal struggle.
Now we are engaged in a great civil cold war. It is a political war between the advocates of limited and unlimited government, between those who support the Founding and the Constitution as amended and the self-described progressives who, by definition, reject what the Founding Fathers bequeathed to us in favor of what Chief Justice Earl Warren called "evolving standards of decency that mark the progress of a maturing society."
Will takes his prompt from a new book by William Voegeli, Never Enough: America's Limitless Welfare State. In the progressive view of politics, there is no limiting principle for government. Writes Voegeli, "Lacking a limiting principle, progressivism cannot say how big the welfare state should be but must always say that it should be bigger than it currently is." We can see this in President Roosevelt's 1944 "Economic Bill of Rights" speech, in which he declared the commitment of his government to, among other things, "the right of every family to a decent home; the right to adequate medical care and the opportunity to achieve and enjoy good health; the right to adequate protection from the economic fears of old age, sickness, accident, and unemployment; the right to a good education." Thus rights become government entitlements that don't limit government, but instead empower and expand it.
For progressives, the purpose of government is not to protect certain natural rights that in turn limit the government itself. This is the political theory of the Founding and the Constitution. Rather, government's job is to discover new rights that come to light as we morally evolve, i.e., as we progress.
Our choice is between two very different forms of government. Limited government stands opposite progressive government of unlimited reach. Individual liberty stands opposite federally guaranteed personal security. Our system of checks and balances stands opposite the popularly unaccountable and trans-political bureaucracy. In the Great Civil War, we fought---as Lincoln put it---for "government of the people, by the people, and for the people." This new struggle is a domestic cold war for that same understanding of freedom. We need to be clear that there is a fundamental difference between these politically divergent ways of life, and that the choice is now clearly before us. Otherwise we will simply slip peacefully into what Alexis de Tocqueville called "soft despotism," the way a freezing man welcomes the embrace of death like a comforting lover.
A good recent primer on the constitutional way of self-government is Matthew Spalding's We Still Hold These Truths: Rediscovering Our Principles, Reclaiming Our Future. You will find a deeper examination of the historical and intellectual shift from the focus on natural rights protected by a constitutionally limited government to social entitlements guaranteed by compassionate politicians and enlightened judges in James Caeser's Nature and History in American Political Development. It's an eye-opening read.