All of the Democratic contenders say that George W. Bush “divides” Americans like never before and that they–and only they–will be able to unite Americans. John Kerry says Bush uses “wedge issues” like the Defense of Marriage Act to divide the American people (even though it was Bill Clinton who did that). Howard Dean, before he imploded like a vegan soufflé, was fond of declaring, “I am tired of being divided by race in this country. I’m tired of being divided by abortion, by gay rights.”
John Edwards has a whole shtick about how the country is divided into “two Americas”: There’s an America for people of “privilege,” and then there’s an America for “the rest of us.” Meanwhile the editorialists–liberal as well as many conservatives–wring their hands about the terrible fissures in American life dividing Americans. Former Clinton pollster Stanley Greenberg, in his new book The Two Americas, also says America is divided into, uh, two Americas. He writes: “Our nation’s political landscape is now divided more deeply and more evenly than perhaps ever before.”
Phooey. Well, half phooey.
It is true that George W. Bush divides America. But so did Bill Clinton. So would have a President Gore if his voters only understood that pesky butterfly ballot. And, so will any of the Democrats running, if they manage to win the election. As Ramesh Ponnuru has noted, we’ve somehow managed to make presidents symbols of the culture war, and that means they will have little chance of uniting us in the future so long as Americans are divided culturally. In fact, I’m not sure presidents ever united Americans in the past.
Which brings me to the phooeyness of the rest of this “divided America” nonsense.
First of all, until you’ve got more than 600,000 American bodies stacked up like cordwood, spare me the “more divided than ever before” talk. We have this phrase in political discourse which is very useful. It goes like this: “…since the end of the Civil War…” You can put it at the end or the beginning of almost any sentence to indicate that you are discussing trends that began after the War Between the States concluded. Because that period in American history is what you might call a statistical outlier. We were really divided then, what with all the shooting each other and stuff. Even in places where there was no shooting, we were very divided. The New York Draft Riots, for example, featured mobs of 50,000 ticked-off New Yorkers and Irish immigrants who burned big chunks of the city over three days and hanged a lot of black people from street lights. I know the Florida recount was a big deal and all, but let’s get a little perspective.
Second, I haven’t looked at the survey data on this question since I was a policy gnome at the American Enterprise Institute, but it seems to me that one could make a persuasive argument that America was more deeply divided in, let’s see: the 1780s, 1790s, 1840s, 1850s, 1860s, 1890s, 1920s, 1930s, 1960s, 1970s, and possibly the 1980s and 1990s. Now, it may be true, as Greenberg suggests, that we are now more evenly divided than at any time–possibly including the Civil War period. But evenly divided people can, and often do, settle their differences with Nerf bats or over checkers or even, don’t you know, at the ballot box. Deeply divided people, on the other hand, are more likely to use guns, knives, and really pointy rocks to settle their differences.
In other words, living in an evenly divided society is an interesting challenge politically, but not a really big problem, while living in a deeply divided society is cause for stocking up on bottled water and shotgun shells.
The idea that citizens should rally around a common purpose specifically expressed through government action–more than a slightly Fascist notion (wait for my book)–has been around for a while, but it never really caught on in America until FDR’s New Deal. Of course, Americans were deeply divided then too, and lots of folks loathed FDR for what he did. In fact, when FDR encountered constitutional resistance to his vision, he tried to pack the courts–so much for trying to unite people. Liberals forget, or dismiss, the discord of the FDR years–or they salute him for steamrolling his critics–because they like what he did.
THE SIXTIES MYTH
In fact, I think what bothers so many liberals about living in a “divided nation” is not that people are split, but that liberals aren’t getting their way. For example, Howard Dean–like Bill Clinton, Al Gore, and Michael Dukakis before him–constantly invokes the 1960s as a time when America was really pulling together with common purpose. It was “a time of great hope,” Dean declared on the stump. “Medicare had passed. Head Start had passed. The Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act, the first African American justice [was appointed to] the United States Supreme Court. We felt like we were all in it together, that we all had responsibility for this country…. That [strong schools and communities were] everybody’s responsibility. That if one person was left behind, then America wasn’t as strong or as good as it could be or as it should be. That’s the kind of country that I want back.”
“We felt the possibilities were unlimited then,” he said in an interview with the Washington Post. “We were making such enormous progress. It resonates with a lot of people my age. People my age really felt that way.”
Well, no. That’s not true. What is true is that many people Dean’s age, who were also liberals, felt that way (though many other liberals his age probably didn’t even then. They only think they did now out of nostalgia). Why is it that liberal Baby Boomers talk as if they come from a magical wonderful place where everybody agreed on everything? In 1969, the year Dean turned 21 (and I was born), the country was deeply divided over Vietnam and Civil Rights. Cities were torn apart by race riots and campuses were hothouses of rage and dissent. In 1968 George Wallace had run on a pro-segregation ticket, and Lyndon Johnson had chosen not to run for reelection because America was so divided over his presidency and his war. This was not the age of hand-holding and Kumbaya.
Ask yourself: “If liberals believe that it’s such a wonderful thing to live in a united nation, why aren’t they more nostalgic for the 1950s or 1920s?” Well, we know the answer. If the American consensus isn’t a liberal consensus, then, well, to hell with consensus. So, even today liberal and feminist historians mock and deride the 1950s as if the American soul were locked in a steamer trunk for the entire decade. And liberal politicians, like Dean, talk about the 1960s as a time of great unity, because in their book “unity” means liberal ascendance and nothing more.
PROPAGANDA ON STILTS
Indeed, virtually none of the clichés so regularly bandied around about “healing” the partisan wounds, closing the American divide, and reuniting the American family can withstand scrutiny.
For example, when John Edwards talks about how tired he is of living in two Americas–one of “privilege” and one for “the rest of us”–it causes one to wonder: What can he possibly do about it? In order to close this permanent divide in American–nay, in human–life, he can do only one of two things. He can abolish privilege or he can move some 270 million people (my rough guess) into the sunny uplands of Privileged America. Presumably the latter is what he has in mind, since a campaign based on giving the people with good health care and good schools the same crappy healthcare and crappy schools everyone else has isn’t a real winner at the polls. And, since Edwards lives in privileged America himself (raising the question of who he means by “us”), I’m sure he can let a few hard-luck folks crash at his pad and maybe his country house too. But where’s he going to put up the other 269,999,990 allegedly underprivileged peeps?
In all seriousness, there is no constitutionally or morally acceptable program that could possibly eliminate the elemental social fact that some people will be better off than others. Sure, the divide between the haves and the have-nots can be narrowed, and you can certainly change how the system rewards people (not that a trial lawyer has much interest in that). But to say you’re tired of living in these two Americas is like saying you’re tired of living in two Americas, the one where it’s night and the one where it’s day.
Or take the perennial bleating about “wedge issues.” The only reliable definition of “wedge issue” I’ve ever encountered goes something like this: “Wedge issues are those issues which hurt Democrats at the polls.” Meanwhile, the “important issues facing America in this dire time of division” are the issues Democrats do well on.
Then there’s this fever of the liberal imagination that says that, if we could simply boost “understanding,” we would bridge all of these terrible divides. Invariably, those who need to understand more are “closed-minded” conservatives of one stripe or another. In other words, if we could only explain to conservatives what hateful bigots they are, we would all get along fine.
I should add that the tendency to assume your opponent needs moral reeducation is one of the least lovely political instincts at home, but it is the source of outright unbridled folly abroad. How many times do we need to hear that the road to peace between Israelis and Palestinians or Pakistanis and Indians will be illuminated through “greater understanding”? The truth is that the greatest hatreds have always been between those groups who understand each other best (it’s not like the Confederacy and the Union didn’t understand each side’s point of view, ditto the Irish and the British, the Greeks, and the Turks etc). I don’t know where this tendency comes from, though it was certainly on display during the Cold War when, for generations, liberals convinced themselves that anti-Communists were wrong because they failed to understand (read empathize with) the USSR.
Another related cliché is the idea that we should all just “get beyond labels.” If someone says “I don’t believe in labels,” what he usually means is “the other side should give up its ideological objections in favor of my ideological objectives.” This is an attempt at rhetorical alchemy by transmuting a political agenda into a “pragmatic” one. As Michael Dukakis tried to explain, it’s not about ideology, it’s about “competence.” Translation: He’s smart enough to do whatever he wants.
Which brings us back to this Democratic mantra of “bringing America together.” Americans are divided because they disagree with each other. That is the American constant, and it doesn’t bother me in the least. Yes, I’d prefer that we were divided about different things, but that’s because I’d prefer to win the current arguments separating the two sides of the culture war. However, if you think unity is the highest political value, you need to ask yourself: Would you rather have national agreement on positions you fundamentally oppose, or would you rather have divisiveness with a chance for victory another day? If you answered honestly, stop complaining about America being divided.