Conservatives and liberals clash frequently on a wide array of issues, from taxes to trade, from deficits to defense. But their greatest conflict may lie in their contrasting attitudes toward civil society.
Conservatives regard the institutions of civil society -- families, churches and communities -- as sources of hope and renewal. Self-styled "progressives" see these institutions as seedbeds of prejudice and ignorance.
Conservatives believe that poverty stems largely from a lack of spiritual resources, resources that are typically transmitted through private, voluntary groups. Progressives view poverty as a simple lack of resources.
Conservatives believe that social justice is best pursued through the restoration of community, familial love, self-respect and responsibility -- all products of a robust civil society. Progressives believe that social justice requires that we redistribute material wealth.
Consider, too, how both groups react to the Tea Party movement.
For conservatives, this movement is a classic example of civil society in action: Ordinary Americans, appalled by the sudden, massive expansion of Big Government, and by the equally sudden, explosive growth of the national debt, have spontaneously organized into associations demanding change.
The great French author Alexis de Tocqueville would surely applaud the Tea Party movement. He would see in it an example of how a vigorous civil society, by serving as a check on the centralizing ambitions of the state, is vital to the health and well-being of democracy.
But progressives support the centralizing ambitions of the state. Thus, they've attacked the Tea Party movement with a fury that might have reminded Tocqueville of the French Revolution's hatred of religion. Prominent progressives have denounced Tea Party members as "terrorists," "racists" and "Nazis" who deserve to be "taken out."
The depth of progressive hatred of the Tea Party movement is startling. But I suppose this is how the "ruling class" invariably reacts whenever the "lower orders" start acting uppity.
Make no mistake: although today's "ruling class" calls itself progressive, it is in fact profoundly reactionary.
By undermining civil society, strengthening the state, and even trying to pin a smiley face on Big Government by renaming it "the federal family," it is laying the groundwork for the democratic despotism that Tocqueville foresaw, and warned against in his landmark book, Democracy in America.