Division in America May Get Worse

The enormity of the Russia scandal and the threat it represents to our democratic system obscures some of the other political, economic and social problems facing the US. These include entrenched disparities of wealth, stagnant wages and chronic underemployment for many, a growing crisis of opioid addiction, increased racial tension, sharp partisan divisions, distrust of the media, efforts to undermine voting rights as well as free media and freedom of assembly, a substantial proportion of the population that is in denial about basic scientific realities like climate change and the general disaster that is the Trump presidency and the Trump agenda.

This is a pretty overwhelming list, but one key question undergirds all of these problems-how can this country possibly hold together? At first glance the may seem alarmist. The US is not on the brink of civil war; secessionist movements are still firmly on the far fringes of political life; and race wars are the stuff of right-wing fantasy. While none of these scenarios are going to come to fruition any time soon, the long-term, and even mid-range, stability and cohesion of the US is imperiled and getting more so with each Donald Trump Twitter rant about fake news or each left of center website proclaiming that impeachment it just around the corner.

This instability may take the form of refusal by some to recognize the outcomes of elections or to follow and implement laws they do not like. More ominously, it could include more than sporadic incidents of violence, a broader acceptance of various forms of bigotry, weaker rule of law, refusal to pay taxes and ineffective, but pesky and harmful secessionist efforts. Over time these would grow into larger problems that could threaten the country.

The US has encountered other periods of profound divisions that have tested our national unity. In many of those cases, our institutions prevailed, and while unity may not have been fully achieved, the country was able to hold together and move forward. There is also one glaring and very bloody case when internal divisions were too strong and could only be resolved through military conflict. We are not moving towards anything like the American Civil War, but it is worth remembering that national cohesion and unity has not always won out. Moreover, unlike other periods of intense internal conflict like around the Civil Rights Movement and widespread protests in the1960s and early 1970s, or during the great depression in the 1930s, our institutions have either already failed, like Congress, or are under attack, like the media, elections and the judiciary.

The primary fault line in American society, and therefore its politics, are between those who see the American future of being increasingly less Christian, less white, more tolerant and more integrated with global economics, culture and technology as a source of excitement, pride and happiness and those who see this same future with apprehension, anxiety and frustration. This division cleaves the country into those who embrace change and feel hope and those who resist change and are fearful of it. The reasons why people feel one way or the other about this issue vary, and are often reinforced by age, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation and religion. However, the division is real and will be extremely difficult to overcome. Neither side can win quickly; and, as the world was shown last November, neither side is going away. This division is not entirely clean. There are many people who feel a pull from some aspects of both views, but in general, this is the major cleavage in the US today.

Both of these storylines are powerful and explain much of the world to those who believe them, or believe parts of them. The rise of this division means that the previous American narrative, one that many but never all Americans believed, that of the American dream, is no longer a powerful or unifying force. For decades the belief that hard work, playing by the rules and gettng a few breaks would lead to a better life, if not for oneself than for one’s children, was very widespread. Many, particularly immigrants or those who start with some advantages, still believe that, but for many others that narrative is either irrelevant or a cruel joke. Absent that national unifying narrative, these two convincing but opposing narratives have become entrenched among substantial proportions of the American people.

The cohesion of the US does not depend on one side persuading or otherwise winning out over the other side, but onthe emergence of new narrative around which widespread agreement can be built, one that recognizes both that there is a lot of positives in the inevitable changes we are facing, but that fears and concerns are real as well. That is exponentially easier said than done, but it is essential. Any politician who understands that and successfully crafts that new narrative could win any election and bring the country together, but given that our political class, on both sides of the aisle, that is unlikely to happen. It is a bit pollyannish to think that a new American narrative can emerge organically from an angry divided population, so we are going to have to work to create this.

The fact that the US has survived every crisis, except for one, and remained a unified country is no guarantee that it will survive this one. Because it is so unimaginable that the country will not hold together, the prospect of our current divisions growing deeper and less revocable is rarely the focus of much attention, but it is real and getting worse.

Photo: cc/Ted Eytan