We are facing a level of “fanaticism, authoritarianism, and nihilism” that is tearing us apart.
Past and Present
In June 1858 Abraham Lincoln, the just-nominated Illinois Republican candidate for U.S. Senate, told delegates, “a house divided against itself cannot stand. . . . This government cannot endure, permanently half slave and half free.”
In mid-May 2021 a Reuters-Ipsos poll indicated that 53 percent of Republicans thought that Donald Trump was the “true president,” and 61 percent of them believed that the 2020 election was “stolen” from him. Two weeks later more than 100 scholars had already signed a statement that read, “we . . . scholars of democracy . . . have watched the recent deterioration of U.S. elections and liberal democracy with growing alarm.” They also noted “the current hyper-polarized political context” and that bipartisanship “is sadly lacking.” In that same week journalist Ronald Brownstein wrote, “Bill by bill, this year’s red-state offensive is measuring the continued unraveling of a country that appears to be unrelentingly pulling apart.”
The “house divided” that Lincoln spoke of in 1858 led within three years to the Civil War (1861-1865). Since then, our “house,” our country, has arguably never been as divided as it has since last November—the Trump-followers’ siege of the U. S. capitol building on January 6 being the most striking sign.
How, or if, this extreme division will end, end short of civil war, history cannot tell us. President Obama liked to quote the words of Martin Luther King, Jr., who said “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” But Obama was (and is) an optimist. There is no guarantee that our future will improve. Knowledge of the past cannot reveal future winners and losers. It can, however, illuminate the contested playing field. As psychologist and futurist Tom Lombardo wrote in Future Consciousness: The Path to Purposeful Evolution (2017), “Memory of the past . . . is the knowledge foundation for both present and future consciousness, as well as wisdom.”
Thus, in the remainder of this essay, we shall look back at historical highlights of the ongoing struggle between unity and polarization. We will examine some of the roadblocks confronting unifiers and consider some possible solutions.
From the earliest stages of our existence as an independent nation, the importance of unity was stressed. In his farewell address to the nation (1796), President Washington stated “the unity of Government . . . is a main pillar in the edifice of your real independence.” But he warned against enemies that would seek to deemphasize the “immense value” of such union, against “the baneful effects of the spirit of party,” and against “the alternate domination of one faction over another, sharpened by the spirit of revenge.” Such a spirit, he stated, “agitates the Community with ill-founded jealousies and false alarms; kindles the animosity of one part against another, foments occasionally riot and insurrection.”
Although President Lincoln abhorred slavery, in the early days of the Civil War (August 1862) he wrote, “My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or to destroy slavery. In 1865, after further developments including the Emancipation Proclamation, he stated that the war effort had to be completed and “the nation’s wounds” bound up.
Despite the Civil War ending later that year, deep divisions continued. Our wounds were bandaged over, but not healed. In his The Upswing: How America Came Together a Century Ago and How We Can Do It Again (2020), Robert Putnam views the post-Civil War Gilded Age as a time when “inequality, political polarization, social dislocation, and cultural narcissism prevailed.”
But then around 1890 the Progressive Era began, in which “institutional, social, and cultural seeds” were planted (by various individuals including both Republicans and Democrats). Out of those seeds, according to Putnam, emerged more than six decades (lasting until the late 1960s) of “imperfect but steady upward progress toward greater economic equality, more cooperation in the public square, a stronger social fabric, and a growing culture of solidarity,” in which we “became more focused on our responsibilities to one another and less focused on our narrower self-interest.”
The Progressive Era, which lasted until about 1914, arguably moved us forward toward a less unequal and fractious society in many respects, though this was also the nadir of American race relations, as southern states consolidated Jim Crow and northern and western towns and cities established patterns of residential segregation. Later revivals of progressivism would have to deal with this toleration of racism. But by 1933, after three successive Republican presidents beginning in 1921, the USA was facing what historian Robert Dallek describes as a widening “cultural divide,” Franklin Roosevelt (FDR) began pulling us out of the Depression by renewing the Progressive tradition. And he did so based on “shared support from every region and every ethnic, religious, and racial group.” In the 1936 election he won 46 out of 48 states, losing only in Maine and Vermont. His New Deal policies to combat the Depression gave people hope.
In 1964, President Lyndon Johnson (LBJ) did almost as well as FDR. He carried 44 of 50 states and won the largest percentage of the popular vote in over a century. Pushed by the movement led by MLK and others, he marshaled support for and signed into law the Civil Rights Act (1964) and the Voting Rights Act (1965), and by executive order he required government contractors to “take affirmative action” in regard to hiring and employment. Between LBJ’s policies and the work of local voting rights activists , the percentage of black registered voters increased almost tenfold in Mississippi and more than threefold in Alabama between 1964 and 1969.
Yet, the overwhelming support received by FDR in 1936 and LBJ in 1964 was deceptive. Beneath the surface lay a festering, unresolved wound that the Progressive tradition, including FDR and LBJ, failed to heal–U. S. racism. Today, despite a few positive signs like making Juneteenth (19 June) a federal holiday to celebrate the end of slavery, the wound continues to fester within our national body.
In 1936 the South–where despite some migration northward, Blacks overwhelmingly lived–was still plagued by segregation, including segregated schools, churches, housing, restaurants, bars, hospitals, barber shops, public transportation, and restrooms. The Supreme Court ruled segregation legal in 1896, and did not reverse its decision until 1954. In addition, other African-American rights were often denied, including the right to vote.
Mainly because FDR was unwilling to alienate too many southern White voters by attacking racist evils, he (in the words of historian Dallek) “never went out of his way to work especially hard for African Americans.”
In addition post-Civil-War Blacks faced many other evils, including the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) and lynchings. After the Northern-imposed Reconstruction Era ended along with the presidency of the KKK-suppressing President Ulysses Grant, Southern terrorism, briefly contained, roared back. Between 1877 and 1950, over 5000 “racial terror lynchings” occurred, overwhelmingly in the South. Meanwhile, in 1915, the KKK was reborn and flourished until the mid-1920s, when its total U. S. membership totaled 4-5 million. In Indiana alone in 1925, over a quarter of native-born, white males belonged to the Klan. According to historian Thomas R. Pegram, “the bedrock of the 1920s Klan movement remained its commitment to the continuation of native-born white Protestant hegemony in American culture and governance.”
The six states that LBJ’s opponent, Barry Goldwater, carried in 1964 were all, except for his home state of Arizona, in the Deep South. In 1972 and 1984, the Republicans Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan did even better in the South, winning all of the southern states (and in each election 49 states in all). The continuing dominance of Republicans in that region was once again demonstrated by Donald Trump in 2016, when he carried all the former Confederate states except Virginia.
The views of many Southern Whites–especially older male non-college graduates in small towns and rural areas–are shared by many males with similar backgrounds in other parts of our country. In 2016 writer George Saunders wrote that many Trump supporters suffered from what he called “usurpation anxiety syndrome,” which he defined as “the feeling that one is, or is about to be, scooped, overrun, or taken advantage of by some Other with questionable intentions.”
That “Other” might be anyone benefiting from Affirmative Action, which many male Whites believed disadvantaged them. Their view was contrary to that expressed by President Lyndon Johnson in 1965, who sought “not just equality as a right and a theory, but equality as a fact and as a result.” Many white males, however, resisted his “compensatory” view of equality. Thus, when Donald Trump competed for the presidency in 2016, their decades-long resistance found its champion.
By then, 65 percent of Whites without college degrees “believed that America’s culture and way of life had changed for the worse since the 1950s.” Yet, few of them admitted that the position of Blacks was far worse–or if grudgingly half acknowledging it, might say it was their own fault. But whatever the causes, on average Blacks died younger, had less education, earned less, and were more likely to be unemployed, harassed by police, and incarcerated.
Both political scientist Putnam (see above) and historian Jill Lepore believe that political polarization has increased during the last half century. Lepore thinks the rise of cable news in the 1980s and 1990s, especially the 1996 launching of the contrasting left vs. right MSNBC and Fox News, was especially significant. So too was the rise of the Internet and social media. She adds that the latter, expanded by smartphones, “provided a breeding ground for fanaticism, authoritarianism, and nihilism,” and it “exacerbated the political isolation of ordinary Americans while strengthening polarization on both the left and the right.”
During the last decade, polarization has been increased by growing distrust in scientific findings in regard to such areas as climate change and coronavirus research. And Donald Trump has certainly fostered such distrust and undoubtedly made us a more divisive country. Meanwhile, White resistance to Affirmative-Action minority “advantages” has remained central.
A June 2021 government report on domestic terrorism declared, “Among that wide range of animating ideologies, racially or ethnically motivated violent extremists (principally those who promote the superiority of the white race) and militia violent extremists are assessed as presenting the most persistent and lethal threats.” Yet, as on so many other questions, reactions to such a claim were split. A month earlier polling data indicated that while 84 percent of Democrats believed that white supremacy was the most lethal U. S. terrorist threat, 88 percent of Republicans disagreed.
Thus, although not our only polarizing problem, our central one has been our failure to agree on which kind of country we wish–one in which Christian white men dominate or the type of society described by abolitionist Frederick Douglass in a Boston speech of 1869, one “of perfect civil equality to the people of all races and of all creeds, and to men of no creeds.”
Actor Jeff Daniels spoke poignantly to this point recently on the “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert.” Explaining to Colbert why he was going to return to the stage role of Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird, he said he wanted to see now what this play about “white blindness” means to people after the killing of George Floyd by a police officer in May 2020. After the murder Daniels thought some white people began to think that they had no idea they “were only taught one side of American history.” So he began to read authors like Ta-Nehisi Coates. The actor told Colbert, “We have an opportunity in this country right now to welcome in a new America. We really do.” He added that the play and novel it is based on affirm that “there’s goodness in everyone and you just have to care enough to look for it.” But he asked, “is there goodness in everyone in 2021?” He’s was not sure, but thought people now have to choose whether they’re for eliminating “systematic racism” or not.
In a 2017 article entitled “Who Are We?” conservative New York Times columnist Ross Douthat also touched on what Daniels referred to as “white blindness.” He noted that many Trump supporters “prefer the melting pot” concept of America to multiculturalism, and prefer a history that stresses our white Christian background, the Pilgrims and the Founders. Moreover, “Trump’s ascent is, in part, an attempt to restore their story to preeminence.” Douthat realized, however, that such a vision of white superiority was no longer suitable.
Related to Daniels’s hope for a “new America” and Douthat’s realization of the need for a new vision is historian Jill Lepore’s Foreign Affairs essay “A New Americanism: Why a Nation Needs a National Story.” In it she asks, “what would a new Americanism and a new American history look like?” Her answer (both in her essay and in her book These Truths: A History of the United States) is similar to that of Daniels–our new Americanism would accept and celebrate our ethnic, religious, and gender-identity diversity.
A new “national story” is also proposed by the organization More in Common (MiC). In its valuable report Hidden Tribes: A Study of America’s Polarized Landscape, it states that “America today needs a renewed sense of national identity, one that fosters a common vision for a future in which every American can feel that they belong and are respected.”
Our present polarization problem is also related to the 1619 Project–“intended to offer a new version of American history in which slavery and white supremacy become the dominant organizing themes”–and all the controversy it has caused. Despite criticisms of the project, even some of its most prominent well-informed critical historians state that they “applaud all efforts to address the enduring centrality of slavery and racism to our history.”
Yet, despite President Biden’s announced intention to reverse our extreme polarization, it will be a herculean task. New York Times columnist Charles Blow recently wrote “Democrats need to stop talking about reaching across the aisle, compromise and common ground.” The Republicans, he believes, care only about “winning and retaining power, defending the narrative of America that white people created and protecting the power and wealth they accrued because of it.”
And the problem is not just in the USA, but one occurring globally, with the central question being, “Can different ethnic groups live harmoniously and productively together? Can they flourish when united in one state?”
Already in 1861, John Stuart Mill wrote,
Free institutions are next to impossible in a country made up of different nationalities. . . . . The influences which form opinions and decide political acts are different in the different sections of the country. . . . The same books, newspapers, pamphlets, speeches, do not reach them. One section does not know what opinions or what instigations are circulating in another.
True, today in the USA we are not talking about the clash of “different nationalities,” but other differences including ethnic ones. Yet with some slight adjustments, Mill’s words are still relevant.
History has since testified to how hard it has been for different nationalities or ethnic or religious groups to live harmoniously together–from 1914’s assassination of Austrian archduke Franz Ferdinand by a Bosnian Serb to the 1990s, when conflicts in the former Yugoslavia among Serbs, Croats, Bosnian and Kosovar Muslims and other ethnic groups led to the deaths of hundreds of thousands (outside of Western nations similar clashes have also occurred). In addition, countries where different nationalities once attempted to coexist–for example, Austria-Hungary, the USSR, Yugoslavia, and Czechoslovakia–eventually broke apart. And today, many Western countries like the USA, France, Germany, and Italy are wrestling with the problem of refugees and immigrants, legal and illegal, and how (or whether) to integrate them. In the case of Europe, many such individuals are Muslim, creating greater difficulties for those who insist on maintaining their Christian cultural heritage. Opposition to more immigration has helped fuel the growth of right-wing movements, not only in the USA but also in Europe.
On the positive side, however, as I indicated in a November 2020 essay, President Biden realizes the need to reduce polarization. As he said at that time,
The purpose of our politics, the work of the nation, isn’t to fan the flames of conflict, but to solve problems, to guarantee justice, to give everybody a fair shot, to improve the lives of our people. . . . We don’t have any more time to waste on partisan warfare.
Having been born in a rust-belt town (Scranton, Pennsylvania), the son of Catholic parents with mixed ancestry (Irish, English, French), his dad once having been a car salesman, and having played high school football and baseball, Biden has been able to empathize with working-class Americans. The various tragedies he has suffered further help him to identify with common people who have experienced many sorrows. He and his second wife, Jill, in many ways exemplify the American Dream, the belief that whatever one’s background, hard work can bring about a better life for one’s family. Thus, President Biden is well positioned to offer an updated version of that “Dream,” one that would be a “compelling, unifying vision that a majority of Americans could embrace.” It would resemble more the visions suggested in the 1960s by MLK and Robert Kennedy, and later by Congressman John Lewis–in MLK’s words, “when all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual: ‘Free at last!’”
But, as MiC’s Hidden Tribes report has observed, “much more is needed than just powerful words,” even if they are from a president who offers a unifying vision. Although Biden seems very mindful of helping not only minorities, but also the white working class, how successful he will be in getting his plans through Congress remains in doubt. If Charles Blow is right (see above) that Republicans care only about “winning and retaining power, defending the narrative of America that white people created” then Biden’s chances of overseeing fundamental and significant changes are indeed slim.
MiC’s Hidden Tribes report also mentions the importance of politicians and activists emphasizing “values that unify the nation.” Partly because Republicans have often stressed “family values,” Democrats have not emphasized them enough. But as Obama wrote in his The Audacity of Hope, “Democrats are wrong to run away from a debate about values,” and the question of values should be at “the heart of our politics.”
One value the ex-president emphasized was empathy–“the heart of my moral code.” Besides empathy, other values like tolerance, humility, compassion, truth-seeking, and a sense of humor could–if embraced across our political divide–also help us overcome extreme polarization. As Robert Kennedy said after MLK was shot:
what we need in the United States is not hatred; what we need in the United States is not violence and lawlessness, but is love, and wisdom, and compassion toward one another, and a feeling of justice toward those who still suffer within our country, whether they be white or whether they be black.
Still another recommendation of Hidden Tribes is for artists and media to “spotlight the extraordinary ways in which Americans in local communities build bridges and not walls.” As David Brooks suggested in mid-2018, mayors and governors can sometimes produce better results because they are more pragmatic and less ideological.
Localism stands for the idea that there is no one set of solutions to diverse national problems. Instead, it brings conservatives and liberals together around the thought that people are happiest when their lives are enmeshed in caring face-to-face relationships, building their communities together.
In recent years various local groups and programs have attempted to decrease polarization. To name just two, there are the Braver Angels, begun in 2016, and Bridging the Gap, a program that beginning in January 2020 brought together for dialogue students from “Oberlin College, a bastion of liberal thinking, and Spring Arbor University, a predominantly conservative, Christ-centered institution.” Braver Angels was first called Better Angels when in December 2016 a group of Trump and Hilary Clinton supporters got together in Ohio and formed a “national citizens’ movement to reduce political polarization in the United States.”
Emphasizing local cooperation can build upon the strong tradition of town meetings that so impressed the French visitor Alexis de Tocqueville in the early nineteenth century. And upon NBC Radio’s America’s Town Meeting of the Air, which debuted in 1935 and which, according to historian Lepore, “aimed to break radio listeners out of their political bubbles.” She quotes its moderator “If we persist in the practice of Republicans reading only Republican newspapers, listening only to Republican speeches on the radio, attending only Republican political rallies, and mixing socially only with those of congenial views . . . and if Democrats . . . follow suit, we are sowing the seeds of the destruction of our democracy.” (See here for similar remarks by President Obama in 2010.)
Another tradition that can be built upon is that of prominent leaders who have urged cooperation, dialogue, and compromise. In various essays (see, e.g., here and here), I have quoted on this subject such individuals as Benjamin Franklin, Dorothy Day, John and Ted Kennedy, conservatives Russell Kirk and Ronald Reagan, and Pope Francis.
While pragmatic approaches on the local level can help overcome excessive partisanship, so too can such steps on a national level. In his classic The Varieties of Religious Experience (1902), William James wrote, “What we now need to discover in the social realm is the moral equivalent of war: something heroic that will speak to men as universally as war does.” During wars, people often come together to fight a common enemy.
Today, the USA and the rest of the world face an enemy just as dangerous as many of our past wartime foes–climate change. In a recent interview–after being asked “What do we do now that humanity will be judged for most harshly in 100 years?–former President Obama answered, “If we don’t get a handle on climate change, then if there’s anybody around to judge us, they’ll judge us pretty harshly on it, because the data is here. We know it. And we have the tools to make real progress with it.”
Although many of Trump supporters have been deniers or minimizers of man-made climate change, its continuing impact is likely to continue changing some minds, and provide a major challenge and opportunity for those wanting to work together, for all those concerned about passing on a liveable world to future generations.
Without doubt, polarizing forces are strong, especially in politics and media, and our future–more divisiveness or increased cooperation–is up to us. The many battlefronted conflict pitting white male dominance against true equality for all is a cosmic struggle akin to that poet John Milton described in his Paradise Lost (17th century) “between God, Satan, and humankind for the future direction of history.” (Those unfamiliar with Milton’s classic might prefer a Star Wars analogy.)
Amid this exhausting and prolonged conflict, we can look to both the past and future for inspiration. During his 27 years in prison, South Africa’s future president Nelson Mandela never gave up hope he could bring apartheid down, and he gave the name Zaziwe, meaning “Hope,” to one of his granddaughters. Looking to the future, futurist Tom Lombardo writes in his Future Consciousness, “hope is the engine and the fuel of flourishing.” Like Mandela, people must not sacrifice their ideals; but like Lincoln on the eve of our Civil War, they can hope that “the better angels of our nature” will prevail.