Just as the financial crisis of late 2008 to early 2009 was the worst in my lifetime, yet probably not really the most calamitous in American or global history, the Great Depression and the Depression of the 1890s both likely having been worse, so now our nation's political divide appears to me without precedent, but I know from a sense of history that the challenges to decorum, respect, integrity, tolerance, peace, acknowledged truth, civility, and the rule of law in the decade before our Civil War, in the years prior to World War II, in the McCarthyism era, in the early days of the civil rights movement, and during the Vietnam War, were also quite taxing and in certain instances or regions more severe than is our current alienation one from another. Yet, even as a relatively small amount of extra something in the universe will make the difference between whether it keeps accelerating faster and faster and farther and farther apart vs. eventually reversing direction and coming back together as a unified singularity, the trends and the energy behind them now in American political discourse, though of uncertain outcome, seem presently to favor an irreconcilable extent of polarity, the rifts growing ever more marked. The phrase "this cannot end well" appears apt.
Black Americans and police officers, new immigrants and established generations of our citizenry, Muslims and Christians or Jews, the poor or "merely" middle class vs. the top 1%, the religious right vs. the assumed atheistic progressives, the coasts vs. the inner heartland, the Republicans vs. the Independents vs. the Democrats, and so on, all participate in a narrative of greater and greater extremes and entrenchment, us vs. them, hypothetical winners vs. losers, that renders mute before they can begin efforts to reach win/win solutions to everyone's concerns.
The United States of the 1930s saw the rise of violent, powerful Fascist and Communist groups. As luck would have it, a subsequent involvement in World War II was transformative and brought levels of unity plus broadened horizons previously not seen as our Greatest Generation successfully and head-on tackled issues that spanned the world and hung civilization in the balance. Is there an as yet unforeseen, existential event ahead for us now that may give us at last the insight to put more petty differences aside and come together for our common good? Or must we and successive generations suffer a fate more like that of mid-19th Century Americans whose disagreements also threatened to tear asunder the social fabric?
Ignoring several other schisms, if we look only at the divide between our dominant political parties, we find interesting stats. Geographically, only 15% of USA regions chose Hillary Clinton in 2016, while 85% of the nation's political units voted mainly for Donald Trump. Yet more voters live in the smaller, Hillary favored territory, fewer in the much larger Trump supporting areas. Voters tended to be quite polarized already by election day, calling her at best "Crooked Hilary" or him "Incompetent Donald" or worse. The popular vote went for her, the electoral college for him. Major urban areas and most along the coasts went for her, rural areas and the Midwest mainly for him. It is reminiscent of the South vs. the North regional divide just prior to The War Between the States. We live in two nations, neither well understanding or appreciating the other.
Today those on one side of the political spectrum openly and regularly use the sounding boards of social media and biased TV and talk shows to proclaim that those on the other side are irredeemable. "Hard line conservatives" say of the "ultra liberals" that they are "democraps," "libtards," hypocrites, crybabies, girly men, "demoncrats," beta, duh-masses, "cucks," bleeding-hearts, communists, snowflakes, and anti-business. The far left attempts to denigrate those on the distant right by calling them traitors, liars, bullies, warmongers, fake news promoters, "deplorables," bigots, trickle-down propagandists, anti-intellectuals, cynics, second amendment fanatics, racists, and (also) hypocrites.
Since the November, 2016, election, members of both major parties have called for violence against the other. Democratic marchers are to be run over with powerful vehicles. Specific opponents on the right are to be killed. Actual aggression and bloodshed have occurred in the name of one or another side. Reporters have also been attacked. There is no agreement even on what are the facts concerning key issues that our politicians face. In a propaganda-rich environment, people often think the truth is unknowable, that all media are distorted, so we might as well simply believe whatever feels right among those who already share our outlooks. This is also redolent of the years before the Civil War, when millions were getting entirely different slants on the news, depending on if they lived above or below the Mason-Dixon line. Naturally they were influenced by skewed presentations of the primary issues leading up to that conflict. As is becoming more true today, through such tainted lenses each side came to see the other as contemptible and illegitimate, ultimately of course leading to prolonged violence from which we have not yet fully recovered as a country.
Clearly, however, we are not there - on the verge of a new civil war - yet. Maybe, as occurred in France with the most recent elections and the victories of Emmanuel Macron and his party, the majority will see it is better to be for things which are positive and centrist instead of mainly against those whom many had come to hate on either extreme. Third parties do not elect presidents in this country, but they can change the atmosphere when it has become too vile. They can also supplant existing parties and, from their new status as one of the two major parties, subsequently go on to win the White House. Hence the Republicans took over from the Whigs in 1856 and elected Abraham Lincoln in 1860. In my view, this could happen again if either the Republicans or the Democrats of today are seen by enough voters as irrelevant to their needs and to the vital business of governing our land. Less heat and more cool, practical, tough accomplishment are what are required. That was a lesson from how we won World War II, got ourselves out of the Great Depression, and mostly avoided fratricidal battles in the streets in the early 20th Century. It was not learned in time by tens of millions here, many of whom thus became combatants in the 1860s.
Is there a constructive way forward now? Certainly, yet to me it cannot occur by each side listening foremost to those preaching to its own choir about the evils of the other. Demonizing Donald Trump, Paul Ryan, Mitch McConnell, and Neil Gorsuch is no more the answer than vilifying Nancy Pelosi, Chuck Schumer, Hillary Clinton, and Barack Obama. Wiser heads must prevail and soon. If not, our cleft country may in a few years again be rife with civil combat, and none but perhaps Putin and the undertakers will be the winners.
The Two Americas of 2016. Tim Wallace in nytimes.com; November 16, 2016.