But in America, unlike Europe or Canada, leaders can spring up from nowhere, develop their own financial base, form a counter-academy through think tanks and a counter-media with talk radio and Fox News, and finally swarm into primaries to unseat party bosses who try to be an echo, not a choice. The ironic net result of this freedom and democracy is the continuation of a culture war that the majority of Americans don't especially like.
On the so-called social issues, from which the term "culture war" first arose, the cleavage that constitutes the culture war is obvious and ongoing: abortion, marriage, abstinence, religious liberty, parental rights. Americans have only to look over to Canada to see the post-culture-war future, the cost of giving up and giving in. In Ontario, the Hamilton Mountain News just posted a newly leaked memo that shows how public schools are being instructed to respond to parents who object to grade school children learning about government-approved sex. Teachers are supposed to smack down parental rights and tell them it is just the teacher's job "to teach accurate, up-to-date information to every child, including yours." Whether you like it or not, see?
But the culture war dynamic has spread from social issues to economics, health care and taxes. These are becoming questions not just of practical policies and politics, but of cultural identity. Sarah Palin is hated and loved for who she is, not for what she promises to do. So, for that matter, was Barack Obama, right up to the moment when he began to actually govern.
Obama has transformed himself into a symbol of politicians who are so principled that they do not care what the American people think.
Do we want to be like Europe? Cosmopolitan, dominated by academic elites, creating the comfort of consensus by shutting down opposition, internationalized, pacifist and dependent, rich but socialist? Or is there something in this thing called America too precious to be lost to government control and the promise of cradle-to-grave safety that comes at the price of liberty and responsibility?
America is a land divided against itself, stuck between two visions of our future, our identity, our very soul.
Ask Evan Bayh: The center will not hold.
Maggie Gallagher is a nationally syndicated columnist, a leading voice in the new marriage movement and co-author of The Case for Marriage: Why Married People Are Happier, Healthier, and Better Off Financially.