I had a conversation this week with an acquaintance of considerable accomplishment in the political and financial worlds. The talk turned to how some prospective presidential candidates seem to be running to lead two different countries. Rick Perry, say, and Elizabeth Warren experience, see, reflect and approach two very different realities. The conversation then took a surprising turn. My acquaintance said it’s possible the U.S. in our lifetimes will simply break up, tear apart. This might not be so terrible, he said, it would probably work out fine. He spoke not with an air of alarm but philosophically and almost cheerfully, which took me aback. I think a lot about the general subject of what deeply divides us, occasionally with a feeling of some alarm. I mentioned that America has been more or less politically divided since I was a young woman—I remembered Time magazine had a big piece on “The Two Americas” in 1969, when I was a teenager. Back then divisions played themselves out in such national arguments as Vietnam and Watergate.
I realized after our conversation that throughout my adulthood I had thought of America as more or less divided, with 20% or so in the center who politically hold things together. I remembered Lee Atwater told me, in 1988, that every presidential election takes place in the 20 yards in the center of the field.
At the same time I had always assumed that America was uniquely able to tolerate division. Shared patriotic feeling and respect for our political traditions left us, as a nation, with a lot of give. We could tug this way or that, correct and overcorrect, and do fine.
My concern the past few decades has been that we’ve lost or are losing some of that give, that divisions are sharper and deeper now in part because many of the issues that separate us are so piercing and personal. Vietnam and Watergate were outer issues. Many questions now speak of our essence as human beings. For instance: In the area of what are called the social issues, there are those (I am one) who passionately believe there must be some limits on what is legal, that horrors such as those that occurred in the office of Kermit Gosnell remind us that at the very least babies viable or arguably viable outside the womb must be protected. They can’t just be eliminated; if that is allowed we have entered a new stage of barbarism, and the special power of barbarism is that once unleashed it brings more barbarism. A worldview away—a universe away—are those who earnestly insist that any limit on a woman’s right to terminate a pregnancy constitutes an illegitimate restriction on the essential rights of all women—that abortion is a personal concern, not a societal one.
One side is trying to protect a human life, the other a perceived right. Both sides in some way represent a different country with different assumptions and understandings of what is compassionate, decent, right.
And abortion of course, though a major, grinding issue, is only one. At the moment the border, the National Security Agency, privacy, overregulation and ObamaCare chafe away. My fear is that the issues mount, increase and are experienced as a daily harassment by more and more people who, public education being the spotty thing it’s been, are less held together than in the past by a unified patriotic theory of America, and consequently less keen on—and protective of—our political traditions. And things begin to fray very badly, even, down the road, to breaking points.
What do our political leaders do to make things better? Or worse? Here I turn to a surprising yet understandable dynamic that I think exists among them. It is that people grow up in a certain environment and tend to think that environment, and its assumptions, are continuing and will always continue. After the beginning of the great recession I saw the money gushing out of Washington to stabilize the system, to reward political cronies, to keep people afloat, to grease all wheels. There was a lot of waste, as is always true in government but is truer when the spigot is fully open. But not many in Washington seemed deeply concerned. The waste, the long-term deficits, the pumped-up Fed, the fear of impending bankruptcy—all gave rise to a feeling of alarm among many in the country. But not among many in Washington. Why?
I came to think that policy disagreement aside, it was that most people in politics grew up in and were surrounded by, in the first 30 or 50 years of their lives, an incredibly, historically affluent America, one whose financial strength was so mighty it could absorb any blow. This fact of their lives became their reigning assumption: You can do any amount of damage to America and it will be fine.
The country they grew up in is the country that lived in their heads. But when they brought their pasts into the future it kept them from seeing the present, in which America could actually be harmed, even go bankrupt.
I think this dynamic applies to assumptions among the political class regarding unending American unity. In the lives of every American now in politics the country has always managed to maneuver itself through rocky shoals, eased its way through changes, survived every challenge not only intact but stronger.
That has been the past so they think it is the future. I think this keeps them from seeing clearly the chafing, antagonized, even fearful present. No nation’s unity, cohesion and feeling of being at peace with itself can be taken for granted, even ours. They have to be protected day by day, in part by what politicians say. They shouldn’t be making it worse. They shouldn’t make divisions deeper.
In just the past week that means:
The president shouldn’t be using a fateful and divisive word like “impeachment” to raise money and rouse his base. He shouldn’t be at campaign-type rallies where he speaks only to the base, he should be speaking to the country. He shouldn’t be out there dropping his g’s, slouching around a podium, complaining about his ill treatment, describing his opponents with disdain: “Stop just hatin’ all the time.” The House minority leader shouldn’t be using the border crisis as a campaign prop, implying that Republicans would back Democratic proposals if only they were decent and kindly: “It’s not just about having a heart. It’s about having a soul.” And, revealed this week, important government administrators like Lois Lerner shouldn’t be able to operate within an agency culture so sick with partisanship that she felt free to refer to Republicans, using her government email account, as “crazies” and “—holes.”
All this reflects a political culture of brute and mindless disdain, the kind of culture that makes divisions worse.
They do this because they do not understand that they have an actual responsibility to hold this thing, America, together, every day. The more placid, more cohering nation they grew up in is in the past. Unity, cohesion and respect are no longer things that can be lauded now and then in prepared remarks. They actually have to be practiced.