Update: I had a chance to read the transcript. There are some real disagreements as to whether the polarization expressed by us chatterers is present in the electorate at large. People like Bill Kristol and David Brooks don’t seem to think so. Brink Lindsay had this to say:
Are we as a people, beyond the political classes, fundamentally divided into red and blue camps? On the
fundamental questions, I would say “no.” I would side with people like Morris Fiorina and others who certainly see a great deal of division, diversity, and conflict in American society, but it doesn’t line up neatly into a red-versus-blue cleavage. In other words, the distribution of
opinions and values isn’t bimodal—two big humps—but rather bell-curve shaped, and there’s a big central hump that dominates the tails on the left and the right.
And I think that that central hump is located in a rather different place than it was a generation ago, and in fact it is not torturing the language too much to say that it is a kind of libertarian, centrist consensus that prevails. On the one hand, there is a very deep attachment to traditional, middle-American values like patriotism, law and order, the work ethic, and family life; on the other hand, there are very heavily counter-culture-influenced attitudes on race, sex, on authority
in general, and on the kind of fervent, almost absolutist embrace of relativism, of which tolerance is the key and cardinal virtue. There is a kind of aversion to preachiness or absolutist truth claims
of any kind.
I’m not persuaded that this basically, but not necessarily essentially, libertarian position is coherent, stable, and sustainable, though I do think that there’s a logic underlying it that militates against some of the commonsensical things to which "we the people" are attached. I explored this issue many moons ago here, concluding:
I fear that our moderation is unstable because it is unprincipled, or rather, because it is ultimately immoderate. Its most culturally compelling element, at the moment, is sovereign individual choice, which recognizes no limits and is by definition infallible.
I remain impressed by the conclusion of Jim Ceaser’s essay, which served as a point of departure for the discussion. Can we be a nation without a foundation, or a nation founded only on the bare assertion of individual autonomy? Some of the panelists (Charles Murray comes to mind) spoke of European non-foundationalism as a real and really dangerous temptation for Americans. I’m inclined to agree and to think that Europeans can actually live longer and better with non-foundationalism than we can, in large part because they are products for the most part of particular national cultural traditions, albeit ones that are rapidly diminishing (for more on this theme, see this Pew Forum transcript, noted here). We, on the other hand, are constituted as a nation by a particular kind of theoretical act, which we forget or whose significance we diminish at our peril.