Slavery was the issue that blew up America in 1861 and led to the Civil War.
But for the 85 years between the nation’s founding and that war, it had seemed that somehow America could eventually phase out the horrific institution and do so largely peacefully.
But by 1861, an array of other differences had magnified the great divide over slavery. The plantation class of the South had grown fabulously rich — and solely dependent — on King Cotton and by extension slave labor. It bragged that it was supplying the new mills of the industrial revolution in Europe and had wrongly convinced itself that not just the U.S. but also Britain could not live without Southern plantations.
Federal tariffs hurt the exporting South far more than the North. Immigration and industrialization focused on the North, often bypassing the rural, largely Scotch-Irish South, which grew increasingly disconnected culturally from the North.
By 1861, millions of Southerners saw themselves as different from their Northern counterparts, even in how they sounded and acted. And they had convinced themselves that their supposedly superior culture of spirit, chivalry, and bellicosity, without much manufacturing or a middle class, could defeat the juggernaut of Northern industrialism and the mettle of Midwestern yeomanry.
Something similar to that array of differences is slowly intensifying America’s traditional liberal–conservative and Democratic–Republican divides.
Globalization is accentuating two distinct cultures, not just economically but also culturally and geographically.
Anywhere industries based on muscular labor could be outsourced, they often were. Anywhere they could not be so easily outsourced — such as Wall Street, Silicon Valley, the entertainment industry, the media, and academia — consumer markets grew from 300 million to 7 billion. The two coasts with cosmopolitan ports on Asia and Europe thrived.
Perhaps “thrived” is an understatement. Never in the history of civilization had there been such a rapid accumulation of global wealth in private hands as has entered the coffers of Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Google, Microsoft, and hundreds of affiliated tech companies. Never have private research marquee universities had such huge multibillion-dollar endowments. Never had the electronic media and social media had such consumer reach. Never has Wall Street had such capital.
The result has been the creation of a new class of millions of coastal hyper-wealthy professionals with salaries five and more times higher than those of affluent counterparts in traditional America. The old working-class Democrat ethos was insidiously superseded by a novel affluent progressivism.
Conservationism morphed into radical green activism. Warnings about global warming transmogrified into a fundamentalist religious doctrine. Once contested social issues such as gay marriage, abortion, gun control, and identity politics were now all-or-nothing litmus tests of not just ideological but moral purity.
A strange new progressive profile supplanted the old caricature of a limousine liberal, in that many of the new affluent social-justice warriors rarely seemed to be subject to the ramifications of their own ideological zealotry. New share-the-wealth gentry were as comfortable as right-wing capitalists with private prep schools, expansive and largely apartheid gated neighborhoods, designer cars, apprentices, and vacations.
For the other half of America, cause and effect were soon forgotten, and a new gospel about “losers” (deplorables, irredeemables, crazies, clingers, wacko birds) explained why the red-state interior seemed to stagnate both culturally and economically — as if youth first turned to opioids and thereby drove industry away rather than vice versa.
Half the country, the self-described beautiful and smart people, imagined a future of high-tech octopuses, financial investments, health-care services, and ever more government employment. The other half still believed that America could make things, farm, mine, produce gas and oil — if international trade was fair and the government was a partner rather than indifferent or hostile.
Cheap transportation and instant communications paradoxically made the country far more familiar and fluid, even as local and distinct state cultures made Americans far more estranged from one another. The ironic result was that Americans got to know far more about states other than their own, and they now had the ability to move easily to places more compatible with their own politics. Self-selection increased, especially among retirees.
Small-government, low-tax, pro-business states grew more attractive for the middle classes. Big-government, generous-welfare, and high-tax blue states mostly drew in the poor and the wealthy. Gradually, in the last 20 years, our old differences began to be defined by geography as well.
In the old days, the legacy of frontier life had made Idaho somewhat similar to Colorado. But now immigration and migration made them quite different. East versus West, or North versus South, no longer meant much. Instead, what united a Massachusetts with a California, or an Idaho with Alabama, were their shared views of government, politics, and culture, and whether they shared (or did not share) bicoastal status. The Atlantic and Pacific coasts were set off against the noncoastal states; Portland was similar to Cambridge in the fashion that Nashville and Bozeman voted alike. As was true in 1861 or 1965, geography often intensified existing discord.
III. Open Borders
The old consensus about immigration eroded, namely that while European and British commonwealth immigration was largely declining, it mattered little given that immigration from Latin America, Asia, and Africa would be diverse, meritocratic, measured — and legal.
The old melting pot would always turn foreigners into Americans. No one seemed to care whether new arrivals increasingly did not superficially look like most Americans of European descent. After all, soon no one would be able to predict whether a Lopez or a Gonzalez was a conservative or liberal, any more than he had been able to distinguish the politics of a Cuomo from a Giuliani on the basis of shared Italian ancestry.
Indeed, the professed views of Bill and Hillary Clinton, Joe Biden, Barack Obama, and Harry Reid before 2009 about illegal immigration were identical to those of Donald Trump in 2018: Secure the border; ensure that immigration was legal and meritocratic; deport many of those who had arrived illegally; and allow some sort of green-card reprieve for illegal aliens who had resided for years in the U.S., were working, and had no arrest record — all in exchange for paying a small fine, learning English, and applying for legal-resident status.
The huge influxes of the 1990s and 21st century — 60 million non-native residents (citizens, illegal aliens, and green-card holders) now reside in the U.S. — destroyed that consensus, once shared across the racial and ideological spectrum, from the late civil-rights leader and Democratic representative Barbara Jordan to labor leader Cesar Chavez.
Instead, a new opportunistic and progressive Democratic party assumed that the Latino population now included some 20 million illegal residents, and about that same number of first- and second-generation Hispanics. The 2008 Obama victory raised new possibilities of minority-bloc voting and seemed to offer a winning formula of galvanizing minority voters through salad-bowl identity-politics strategies. Purple states such as California, Colorado, Nevada, and New Mexico gradually turned blue, apparently due to new legions of minority-bloc voters.
One way of making America progressive was not just winning the war of ideas with voters, but changing the nature and number of voters, namely by welcoming in large numbers of mostly impoverished immigrants, assuring them generous state help, appealing to their old rather than new identities, and thereby creating a new coalition of progressives committed to de facto and perpetually open borders.
IV. The Salad Bowl
Racial relations deteriorated. Affirmative action was no longer predicated on the sins of slavery and Jim Crow and aimed at reparations in hiring and admissions for African Americans, often on the implicit rational of helping the poorer to enter the middle class.
Instead, “diversity” superseded affirmative action and eventually constituted an incoherent binary of white–non-white. Yet that divide could not be logically defined either by race (hence the anomalies of everything from Elizabeth Warren’s constructed minority identity to the nomenclature gymnastics of a Kevin de León), or by economic or historical oppression, or by present income and wealth.
On entry to the U.S., affluent immigrants from Mumbai, poor arrivals from Oaxaca, Chilean aristocrats, or Taiwanese dentists would all be deemed “minorities” and courted as such by political operatives. Stepping foot on American soil equated with experiencing racism, and racism generated reparational claims of an aggrieved identity.
Of course, when a third of the country was now asked to self-identify in existential fashion and for self-interested purposes as non-white rather than incidentally as Americans of Punjabi, Arab, Mexican, African, or Chinese heritage, then it was natural that those who did not fit the racial arc that supposedly always bent to predetermined justice would began to shed their own once proud ethnic heritages as Americans of Irish, Armenian, Greek, or Eastern European descent. They’d likewise start to reactively see themselves as “white” — in a way that overshadowed their prior particular ethnic fides. We were well on our way to embracing an old but also quite new force multiplier of existing difference.
Increasingly, half the country views its history and institutions as inspirational, despite prior flaws and shortcomings, and therefore deserving of reverence and continuance. The other half sees American history and tradition as a pathology that requires rejection or radical transformation.
V. The Post-War Order
The world of post-1945 is coming to a close — after the end of the Cold War, the collapse of the Soviet Union, the unification of Germany, the creation of the European Union, the ascendance of a mercantilist and authoritarian China, and the post-9/11 rise of radical Islamic terrorism. Our closest NATO allies near the barricades of Russian aggression and radical Islam are the least likely of the alliance to prepare militarily. Yet Russia is a joke compared with the challenge of China. The European Union project is trisected by north-south financial feuding, east-west immigration discord, and Brexit — and the increasing realization that pan-European ecumenicalism requires more force and less democracy to survive than did the old caricatured nation-state.
The post-war rationales for American global leadership — we would accept huge trade imbalances, unfair trading agreements, often unilateral and costly interventions given our inordinate wealth and power and fears of another 1939 — no longer persuade half the nation.
The descendants of the architects of the old order were no longer able to make the argument that warplanes over Afghanistan, Iraq, or Libya were central to U.S. security, or at least in cost-to-benefit terms aided the United States. And it did not help that the classes who made the argument for American preemptory international interventions had few answers on how to deter Iran, challenge an aggressive China, or denuclearize North Korea; further, they appeared to have weird contempt for those Americans who were asked to pay the taxes and send their daughters and sons abroad to fight and sometime die for what seemed an increasingly ungrateful “other.”
The lesson of Iraq was about more than the wisdom or folly of that intervention. It was a warning that those who advocated optional wars might not always continue to support the war when it turned ugly and unpopular — and was deemed injurious to their own careers. That fact also turned half the country off on its leadership.
America is not isolationist, but an increasing number of its citizens sees overseas interventions as an artifact of globalization. Rightly or wrongly, they do not believe that the resulting rewards and costs are evenly distributed, much less in the interest of America as a whole.
It is now old-hat to say that the Detroit of 1945, at the time perhaps the world’s most innovative and ascendant city, now looks like Hiroshima or Hamburg of 1945, while Hiroshima and Hamburg of 2018 resemble the equivalent of 1945 Detroit. The point is not that the post-war order itself destroyed Detroit, but that Americans see something somewhere wrong when we helped rebuild the industrial cities of the world and crafted an order under which they thrived but in the process ignored many of our own.
Advice from Hippocrates
The various ties that bind us — a collective educational experience, adherence to the verdict of elections, integration and assimilation, sovereignty between delineated borders, a vibrant popular and shared culture, and an expansive economy that makes our innate desire to become well-off far more important than vestigial tribalism — all waned. Entering a campus, watching cable news, switching on the NFL, listening to popular music, or watching a new movie is not salve but salt for our wounds.
In the absence of political, cultural, or social ecumenicalism, perhaps we can at least for now privately retreat to the old Hippocratic adage of “first, do no harm” to one another.