A political observer insists that the country hasn’t been this divided since the 1850s.
Which political observer? Lots of them, as it turns out.
In 2011, California governor Jerry Brown insisted that the country was experiencing a regime crisis of the sort not seen since the run-up to the Civil War. In 2013, Professor Aubrey Jewett of the University of Central Florida said the same thing. In 2014, it was Gawker; in 2010, it was Jimmy Carter. It’s a pretty common claim.
It isn’t true, of course. While race riots and snipers do bring to mind the worst of the 1960s, it isn’t 1968, much less 1860. We’ve had a few years of economic weakness, but there is broadly shared prosperity. We have corrupt and often ineffective public institutions, but government remains responsive enough to ensure general consent, and, beyond its provision of basic physical security, it is less and less relevant to our immediate happiness and well-being. Even as our political discourse becomes more theatrical and hysterical, we are, as a people, remarkably complacent. When Sean Hannity sat down to do a “town hall” show with Donald Trump, he attracted an unusually large audience — but 28 times as many people tuned in to watch reruns of The Big Bang Theory, the Coriolanus of broad, laugh-tracked sitcoms.
You’d think a country on the verge of political meltdown would pay a little more attention to the news. Despite what you may have heard from Donald Trump, National Review is the largest magazine of its kind, and our readership is about 4 percent of US Weekly’s. Golf Digest, Glamour, and Martha Stewart Living all have readerships that the New York Times management would sell Arthur Ochs Sulzberger Jr.’s soul for, if anybody were buying.
But telling people that we’re on the verge of civil war is a good business model. Michael Savage has made a lot more money peddling Armageddon than he ever did peddling herbal nostrums as Michael Weiner. His colleague, the Reverend Al Sharpton, has grown rich trying to give him that civil war — it’s a little like the symbiotic relationship between police and terrorists described in Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent. Conrad knew all about living in consequential times: His father had been a famous revolutionary and exile. Like any sane man of his age, he became a British subject as quickly as he could, changing the dramatic rule of the czar for the sedate reign of Queen Victoria. Boring, stable societies are best appreciated by those who have known the other kind.
It is worth considering the possibility that we do not live in especially consequential times, politically speaking, and that much of the drama of our current politics is just that: drama, a performance we stage for ourselves as an entertainment.
It is worth considering the possibility that much of the drama of our current politics is just that: drama, a performance we stage for ourselves as an entertainment.
Conservatives insist, sometimes quaveringly, that Barack Obama is the worst president in American history, that he is a catastrophe from which we may never recover; Democrats were saying the same thing about George W. Bush a few years back. (I am at a libertarian conference this week, among more than a few people who think that both of those positions were correct.) Obama is probably more of an Al Smith. Smith was an interesting guy, in many ways, an efficiency-obsessed Taylorist and anti-Prohibitionist whose father, a child of immigrants, had with characteristic American directness replaced his Italian surname, Ferraro, with its English equivalent. All anybody really remembers about Al Smith is that he was the first Catholic nominated for the presidency by a major political party. A century from now, people will remember Barack Obama as the first black American president, and probably not much else.
Forty years ago, our great existential threat was the Soviet Union, the implacable heirs to Conrad’s vicious czars. They promised: “We will bury you!” And they had a great quantity of nuclear weapons to back that up. With all due respect to the brave men and women who fight them and to the millions who have suffered under them, the Islamic jihadists aren’t the USSR. Like our politicians and radio ranters, they’re mainly in the theater business, staging dramatic atrocities in lieu of a more substantial political project. They can do a great deal of damage, but they are not going to march on Washington and hang their banner on the Capitol. They aren’t world-conquering global supervillains, but half-organized desert savages.
Donald Trump rages that crime is out of control when it is in fact at a historical low and has been declining, dramatically, for decades. (This is one of the great successes of American public life, one that is poorly understood; naturally, the people in Washington have set about trying to undo it, but, happily, they don’t seem to know how it was done or how to get it undone.) In the 1980s, the Trumpkin types were sure that the Japanese were going to eat our national lunch; today it is the Chinese. Japan is now a nation in decline, and Beijing, far from achieving economic hegemony abroad, is desperately trying to forestall an economic crisis at home.
It is interesting to note that the people now shrieking in the streets (or on Twitter) that these are the worst of times, and possibly the end times, are the same ones who were doing it in the 1980s. Trump himself was a great Japanophobe in the 1980s, threatening to run for president in 1988 (he was really just hawking a book) and treating Oprah Winfrey to tirades against free trade. In 1964, they were in Barry Goldwater’s camp; in 1968, they were with George Wallace, whose policy views were radically opposed to Goldwater’s libertarianism (Wallace was, for instance, an opponent of right-to-work laws, the sort of politician who would have been a union-hall Democrat if he had been from somewhere other than Alabama). But Wallace pressed some of the same cultural buttons. When he was trying to recruit former baseball commissioner Happy Chandler as his vice-presidential candidate, an aide argued: “We have all the nuts in the country. We could get some decent people, too — you working one side of the street and he working the other.”
One suspects that Chris Christie recently received an e-mail with approximately the same contents.
But they aren’t really nuts — not all of them, anyway. They are disproportionately male, in the South and the Rust Belt, not poor but economically anxious, and — conservatives should here take a note — not conservative. They’re “conservative” if you are the kind of illiterate who works at NBC and describes the pro-abortion, anti-gun Rudy Giuliani as “far right.” But if you aren’t a complete moron, you’ll see that they are anti–free market (especially markets that span borders), pro-welfare (just don’t call their entitlements “welfare”), blasé or worse on abortion and marriage, and they are as class-war driven as any smelly hippie Occupying wherever. The union men I spoke with at Bernie Sanders events would never think of openly supporting a Republican, but they have exactly the same views on immigration as Donald Trump. In another era, they’d have been Wallace voters; no doubt more than a few of them were.
Happy Chandler took a pass on Wallace, and a few months later Americans were hearing Curtis LeMay calmly explaining why we shouldn’t be a prisoner of “phobias” about using nuclear weapons in Vietnam and that stories about radioactive aquatic life around Bikini atoll were exaggerated.
Those were interesting times. I’m glad I missed them.