The numbers are intimidating: According to Pew Research, 53 percent of Americans feel that it is stressful to discuss politics with those across the partisan divide, and 63 percent believe, after such conversations, that they have less in common with political opponents than they had previously thought. Indeed, more Americans judge that the deepest social divide in America is across political identity—more so than across racial, class, generational or urban/rural groups.
Such statistics have prompted myriad hot takes lamenting our current and woeful state of affairs. Yet, anyone with minimal consideration of American history knows that the current level of partisan hostility is relatively moderate. We are not in the midst of a civil war, nor the racial and anti-war upheavals of the 1960s. There is no Preston Brooks caning his colleague in the Senate. Trump’s labeling the media the “enemy of the people” frustrates many, but there are no new restrictions on the freedom of the press. Undeniably, there are numerous instances in American history when violence, social animosity, and political intrigues were considerably more grotesque than they are today.
Nevertheless, there is something deeply troubling—and unique—about this era of divisiveness. The paramount difference is that today’s expanding divide is driven by little substantive economic or cultural substance. While past partisan tension was induced by deep socio-political rifts—from racism and slavery to concerns regarding the meddling of foreign threats–today’s divisiveness lacks a foundation in genuine problems.
One would find it difficult to outline either side’s objectives. No master plan or even competing strategies exist. The loudest voices on the left reflexively but unabashedly want to tear down nearly every traditional economic and cultural structure not because there truly are innate problems within these structures, but because that is what the left has done since it emerged as a political force. The angst and the destruction are for their own sake, utterly detached from any objective underlying deficiency.
But the right offers little in the way of a forward-looking program. Entitlements need to be fixed, but that is politically challenging. Obamacare has many problems, but the GOP has failed to repeal it numerous times. America’s constitutional structure continues to fray, but little concrete action has been taken to patch it. Instead, the only goal is to stop the left, even if it means jettisoning time-honored principles. Although vestiges of a principled defense of the old constitutional republicanism still exist on the right, the modus operandi has increasingly become “owning the libs.”
The lack of substantive problems stands in marked contrast to previous upheavals in American history. The objectives of the Civil War, for instance, were clear. The North first sought to preserve the Union and then later to abolish slavery. And while the Union had to crush the ideology of states’ rights alongside the Confederate army, it was ultimately a political compromise that (albeit imperfectly) brought the nation back together. Likewise, the civil rights movement sought to correct many of the injustices of the antebellum period. Once achieved, the heat of the 1960s and 1970s was able to subside.
From an objective perspective, contemporary America is experiencing high points across myriad issues. It is difficult to dispute that economy, race-relations, and foreign security, among other matters, are near or at their zenith. Real GDP per capita reached $57,170 in the fourth quarter of 2018, the highest level ever and nearly 16 percent higher than the post-Great Recession low a decade ago.
Economic and civil rights for minorities and women are the best they have been in the history of the United States, and indeed, maybe in the history of any civilization. Educational attainment, for instance, has skyrocketed, with 87.9 percent of African-Americans and 71.6 percent of Hispanics 25-years or older having completed four or more years of high school in 2018, up from 40.8 percent and 36.5 percent, respectively, in 1974. Likewise, the labor force participation rate for women at 57.2 percent is nearly double the rate in 1948.
Despite the emergence of some strategic geopolitical challenges vis-à-vis China, the U.S. is entering its fourth decade as the undisputed global superpower. There has not been a war among Great Powers in 75 years.
While nothing is perfect—and some Americans have indisputably benefited less than others—to ignore the high point that we now live in is to be historically naïve.
Yet, regrettably, far too many people do not feel that the American experience is at such an apex. Part of the problem is undoubtedly due to the overwhelming wealth of our time—both in social and economic terms. Our wealth has hampered our ability to appreciate the nature of real penury and struggle. Instead, ingratitude—or at least lack of historical understanding—has led many to believe that the spectacular economic and social benefits of the American experiment are the baseline and not the pinnacle of human flourishing.
Our growing alienation has provided fertile ground for endless griping about the most pedestrian of issues. We have manufactured outrage, exacerbated by a 24-hour news cycle, anonymous and destructive social media and a political party system increasingly sorted on ideological lines. Our basest human characteristics are given unrestrained freedom as these new phenomena undermine the essential structures that make civilization work.
And since we are operating in an environment of hatred merely for hatred’s own sake, all that seems to be necessary is one misplaced spark—an untimely assassination attempt, for instance—to drive the partisans into the streets.
So while our current era is not the most hostile our country has ever known, what is new and dangerous is that the growing partisanship is a self-propagating phenomenon. The deeper and more pervasive the socio-political heat, the more Americans divide themselves into cloistered groups—both geographically and ideologically. The less exposure to other views, the more Americans view the other as evil and the greater becomes the heat. And so, the downward spiral continues apace.
More significantly, given the manufactured nature of our national angst, there is no foreseeable resolution. There is no objective, which once achieved, could be declared a victory, allowing the partisans to tear down their fortifications and return to a level of American bonhomie. Americans increasingly define their social and political goals in negative terms—success is merely thwarting the other side. Such an attitude provides no grounds for compromise, but more notably no conceptual endpoint. Only the total destruction of the other can assuage the outrage —a true zero-sum game.
We may still be able to avoid such a fate. Maybe the heat will be tempered by the fact that many people simply do not care enough to commit wholeheartedly to the firestorm—despite a rhetorical loathing of their antagonists. Maybe the mind-numbing modern technologies that have spurred these developments will eventually dull our senses from the worst excesses. Or maybe an enlightened leader or a real national emergency will arise and refocus our attention to something more significant and substantive. There is a way out—let’s hope we find it.