I have the uneasy sensation, however, that the lids are rattling again. The past year in US politics has been full of more alienation and polarization than at any time since 1861, all of it now capped off hellishly in the attempted assassination of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D) of Arizona. And just as in 1861, that divide has opened up over a single deep question. Then, the question was "What makes for liberty?" In 2011, it is "What makes for justice?"
This is why the political battles over specific policies have become so intense – because they are all linked to a fundamental collision of values about justice. The new health-care law, for example, is not merely another entitlement; it springs from a new way of understanding what justice is, and thus it ends up entirely rewriting the relationship of citizens to the state. Likewise with "don't ask, don't tell" and gay marriage. These are not merely variations on sexuality and marriage; because they represent an entirely new way of thinking about human nature, they bring into question our understanding of what Jefferson called "the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God." Today's passions are not merely the irritations of marginalized people with too much religion, too much talk radio, or too many guns. They are the sign of political pots ready to blow the lids off democracy.