Is the U.S. a land of liberty or equality?

Our national debates now transcend disputes over this or that spending program or tax and have become — in the minds of the combatants — a climactic struggle for the nature and soul of America. One side is allegedly bent on inserting government into every aspect of our lives and suffocating individual responsibility and effort. The other is supposedly beholden to the rich, committed to “survival of the fittest” and indifferent to everyone else.

If you believe these are the stakes — and that defeat would extinguish America’s most valuable and virtuous aspects — then the other side is to be despised and demolished. Your very love of country impels you to extremes of rhetoric and belief. It nudges you, increasingly, to hate the other side.

The backdrop to this struggle is long-standing. As Alexis de Tocqueville noted, Americans venerate both liberty and equality. Our entire history involves this tension between preserving freedom and promoting equality. If you are defending either, you naturally think that you are the legitimate heir of the country’s core beliefs.