On Independence Day, which fell on Sunday this year, I found myself as an elder at my small mainline Protestant church lofting up a prayer for “our nation, on its birthday, that we may overcome the conflicts dividing us and find peace and reconciliation.” I’m sure similar sentiments were expressed in many worship services on July 4, not to mention in op-ed columns and in private conversations at BBQs, community events, and family get-togethers. Many, if not most, Americans crave relief from a conflict-ridden and volatile political climate that has grown steadily more intense in recent years, starting even before Donald Trump’s election.
But in retrospect, my pious hopes for unity were just that. And while I do pray a benevolent God may keep us Americans from ripping one another apart over our political and cultural differences, it’s time to recognize that they are real, not contrived; deep-seated, not superficial; and an authentic reflection of divisions in our population, not an invention of manipulative elites, politicians, or the news media. Embracing this fact is important, as history shows; avoiding legitimate forks in the road could lead the country into a wilderness of false compromises and a failure to address significant problems, just as happened when we initially put off dealing with the issue of slavery.
As the Pew Research Center documented in 2017, the breadth and persistence of our differences has been steadily increasing, even though we wish it were otherwise:
The divisions between Republicans and Democrats on fundamental political values — on government, race, immigration, national security, environmental protection and other areas — reached record levels during Barack Obama’s presidency. In Donald Trump’s first year as president, these gaps have grown even larger.
And the magnitude of these differences dwarfs other divisions in society, along such lines as gender, race and ethnicity, religious observance or education.
As Pew noted, partisan polarization (between Democrats and Republicans) is partly attributable to the ideological sorting out of the two parties that began during the civil-rights era. Because this process coincided with greater ideological polarization as well (between liberals and conservatives), it’s easy to pine for the days when there were liberals and conservatives in both major parties and things got done. But nostalgia for the good old days ignores the price that many Americans had to pay for this suspension of political hostilities. In the 1960s, open racism was still largely accepted; the idea of equality for women — and of legalized abortion — was highly controversial; equality for LGBTQ folks was a subversive, underground idea; and a global war against Communism was barely debated until it failed miserably in Vietnam.
While the subsequent decades were increasingly turbulent politically, with conflicts within and between the two parties over a wide range of domestic, foreign-policy, and cultural issues, we’ve been in a true era of polarization since the disputed election of 2000. And while it got immensely worse when Trump became president, his departure has hardly made things better, as Ron Brownstein recently observed:
These centrifugal pressures call into question not only the ability of any president to unify the nation, but also his or her ability even to chart a common course for more than roughly half of the country — either red or blue America. This divergence, across a wide range of issues and personal choices, is rooted in the continuing political re-sorting that has divided the parties more sharply than ever along demographic and geographic lines and produced two political coalitions holding inimical views on the fundamental social and economic changes remaking America. And that destabilizing process shows no signs of slowing, much less reversing, even after Trump — who fomented division as a central component of his political strategy — has left the White House.
Our stark divisions are so painful that it’s tempting to blame them on elites — on the media, who are thought to promote conflict to make a buck, and the political leaders seeking to energize followers by demonizing the opposition and refusing to compromise. But the idea of a unity-seeking citizenry being frustrated by partisan gabbers and pols simply isn’t accurate. And the fact that a change of administration has barely reduced partisan conflict is telling. It’s not just about Trump, as Emory University’s Alan Abramowitz explains in a soon-to-be-published paper he shared with Brownstein.
“One of the most important reasons why Democrats and Republicans intensely dislike each other is that they intensely disagree on a wide range of issues including the size and scope of the welfare state, abortion, gay and transgender rights, race relations, climate change, gun control and immigration,” Abramowitz writes. “As long as the parties remain on the opposite sides of almost all of the major issues facing the country, feelings of mistrust and animosity are unlikely to diminish even if Donald Trump ceases to play a major role in the political process.”
The divisions, moreover, go beyond public policy to matters of personal conduct, as evidenced by the extraordinary reluctance of self-identified Republicans to take advantage of easily available COVID-19 vaccines, with many regarding their encouragement by the government as an infringement of personal liberty. But even the broadest understanding of partisan conflict may understate its pervasiveness and power. As the Bulwark’s Joshua Tate points out, the long-standing conservative tendency to view Republican constituencies as the “real America” has evolved into a paradox: Alleged super-patriots despise much of what their country has become.
Trumpist writers have worked themselves into such a state that they have stretched their critique to include literally half of the American population. As Michael Anton, a former Trump aide who is now a Claremont Institute senior fellow and a Hillsdale lecturer, puts it, “one side loves America, the other hates it — or can tolerate it only for what it might someday become, were the Left’s entire program to be enacted without exception.” Anton, the articulate id of intellectual Trumpism, cuts America in two on religious, linguistic, and even moral grounds, casting the Biden coalition as speaking a babble of languages, worshipping “wokeness” with “Dionysian abandon,” and conceiving of justice solely through the lens of punishment. In a blunt essay, Glenn Ellmers, another Claremont and Hillsdale associate, claims “most people living in the United States today — certainly more than half — are not Americans in any meaningful sense of the term.”
Conservative longing for a lost American “greatness” finds its parallel in the left’s instinctive belief in the inevitability of “progress,” defined as a more rational and equitable political system bent on obliterating illegitimate privileges and empowering members of oppressed identity groups. Right-wing hatred of progressives as inauthentically American is reciprocated by progressive hatred of (or more accurately, contempt for) Trump voters, whom they deem, to use Hillary Clinton’s unfortunate phrase, “deplorables” determined to defend the worst features of the past.
There are, of course, self-identified Republicans who dislike or only conditionally back Trump and his supporters and self-identified Democrats who fear “socialism” or “cancel culture” or “wokeness,” but their numbers seem to be steadily declining. And while the public longs for bipartisanship in the abstract, what they really seem to want is the other side’s surrender, not any actual compromise.
You can look at this pervasive polarization and bewail a lost, if increasingly imaginary, tradition of American unity. Or you can welcome the benefits that come with the costs of disunity: the new clarity and accountability that two parties with systematically opposed perspectives creates. Is partisan polarization dangerous? Of course, as the Civil War showed. Is an absence of partisan polarization dangerous too? Of course, as the oppressive period prior to the Civil War showed, when the two major national parties sought to avoid a reckoning over slavery. Sometimes an end to polarization simply reflects the victory of one set of beliefs over another, as when the Republican Party was formed to demand a curb on the slave power and eventually won power of its own; or when the Democratic Party decisively broke with its limited-government heritage during the New Deal and became the majority party for a generation.
I’d argue we are at another big inflection point. It’s more likely the country will turn left or right than achieve major compromises. That today’s conservatives are frantically trying to suppress popular majorities by exploiting anti-democratic features of our system or, worse yet, by denying such majorities exist is a pretty clear sign of which way the wind is blowing. If the authoritarian strain in Republican politics exemplified by Trump morphs into the kind of reactionary movements that crushed parliamentary democracy entirely in Europe nearly a century ago, perhaps we will long even more for the phony solidarity of an imagined bipartisan past, when backs were slapped and deals were cut in Congress and justice and progress were denied.
More likely, we are destined in the very near future to acknowledge and resolve our differences by choosing sides and having it out. That’s far healthier than denying those differences or blowing up the whole system to avoid defeat.