What ails us? That is, what do Americans disagree about, and what causes the sense we’ve lost our way? I think they’re related, and that they tie in with this week’s federal holiday.
Let’s go through the standard list of our national concerns.
It’s not about foreign policy. There’s still a general consensus, which I share, that a cautious interventionism abroad to protect our interests makes sense. I don’t think that President Trump’s decision to kill a terrorist general will be a generally unpopular one. Or look at it this way: If President Obama were still president and had done the same thing, it would not have been shocking, and his supporters would not have been outraged.
Nor do I sense any serious rejection of free-market capitalism among most Americans. I’ll go even further than that: Most Americans still care more about liberty and equal opportunity rather than government-mandated egalitarian results. People may be frustrated with health care, and it is disheartening when a manufacturing plant of some kind closes in your town, but a general embrace of socialism or mercantilism? I don’t think so.
We also still have a government of limited and separated powers — and a judiciary that, thanks to President Trump, is increasingly likely to do its job in preserving that system, despite backsliding and drift in the political branches away from our founding principles. As a broad matter, I don’t think this is a minority view, especially with regard to the political branches, and indeed the main exceptions regarding the judicial role are important but limited, and mostly about sex.
No, the dysfunction — and division — is social rather than about economics or defense or our basic government structure. It’s about behavior — behaving honorably, or at least respectably: following the law, working hard, taking care of your family, loving your country, obeying God.
It’s a sense that our consensus on these fundamentals of behavior has eroded. And indeed they have, and therein lies the reason for division and dysfunction.
I want to acknowledge that there’s one big irony here. The conservative objection to President Trump is not about policy, but because of the man’s character: He is, in a word, frequently without honor in the way he behaves. That’s why, with tongue only partly in cheek, I’d say that I’m glad he has been impeached by the House, even if I also hope and expect that he won’t be convicted by the Senate. His behavior was not honorable.
On the other hand, the loss of civility and the increased polarization that results from our social dysfunction and division described above is indeed unfortunate for us all, but the blame is not symmetrical. The Left started it, even if the president relishes it.
Back to the elements of honorable behavior — law, work, family, patriotism, God — and the quite reasonable belief by many Americans that those elements have been rejected by a lot of other Americans. People are tired of being told that their country is not so great, and they are sick of — and feel threatened by — being told that they don’t deserve what they have, and that other people have a better claim on it.
The Left uses race and ethnicity to send this message, but one senses that they’d be happy to use class, wealth, and income to send that same message. It tries to use sex and gender issues as well. “Race, class, sex” has long been the Left’s higher-ed mantra, after all.
The Left has long tied attacks on the United States to its purported imperialism, too, though these used to be cast as responses to capitalist aggression and are now cast as responses to white supremacy. And of course Christianity is painted derisively.
It’s interesting, by the way, that class distinctions have become a two-edged sword. The president’s supporters don’t like the feeling that other Americans would rather break bread with a rich foreigner than with them.
People are also sick of being told that their belief in behavioral norms is just bigotry: that laws and law enforcement are racist, that privilege discredits hard work, that the traditional family is sexist, that loving your country is xenophobic, and that believing in God is stupid.
Sexual immorality — in particular, the implosion of the family we have seen as more and more children are born and raised out of wedlock — has had serious social and psychological consequences, and it is hard to imagine that this could have happened in a country where people thought about how God wants them to behave.
Black Lives Matter and Michelle Alexander’s polemics to the contrary notwithstanding, the reason there are a disproportionate number of African-American prison inmates is not because of racist laws or law-enforcers: It’s simply because a disproportionate number of crimes are committed by African Americans.
And the reason for this is cultural, and the principal cultural problem is that 7 out of 10 African Americans are born out of wedlock. It’s also more than 6 out of 10 for Native Americans, and more than 5 out of 10 for Latinos, versus fewer than 3 out of 10 for non-Hispanic whites and fewer than 2 out of 10 for Asian Americans. That’s a huge range, and it is no accident that the groups that are doing the best are at one end and that the groups that aren’t are at the other. This is true within groups as well as between them.
Racial disparities in family formation mirror racial disparities in everything else, and are the reason for the persistence of the latter. But the Left cannot acknowledge this because it would thwart its civil-rights agenda.
What’s more, the objection to the Left’s civil-rights agenda is not just the programs but the mindset they encourage and reflect: backward-looking, fault-finding, passive, and without perspective (Exhibit A: the New York Times’s 1619 Project) — rather than forward-looking, forgiving, positive, and proportionate.
And it’s really a bad idea to encourage people to view themselves and the world in 2020 through a racial lens. What good can come of that? The bad results, on the other hand, are obvious and predictable: It’s divisive, excuse-making, backward-looking, unproductive. For any insight it may give you, it blurs reality much worse.
As Richard Epstein titled one of his books, we need simple rules for a complex world. Of course racism existed and, to a much lesser extent, still exists. And perhaps achieving cosmic justice, as Thomas Sowell titled one of his books, would require a color-conscious Divine Being. But a human-run system of human-written laws works far better if it eschews racial discrimination and racial preferences. That’s the way forward.
Now, I said that Americans really aren’t hopelessly divided with respect to foreign policy, capitalism, and our constitutional structure: Am I exaggerating when I assert that there is such a division with respect to law, work, family, patriotism, and God?
Well, no doubt there are plenty of people who voted for Hillary Clinton and like at least a couple of items on that list. But I do think there is more of a division here, and certainly it’s more reasonable for a lot of Americans to perceive it here. In one way or another, the Left derides them all — and one major political party is unwilling to challenge the Left, because its politicians and leadership are afraid to.
I’ll end by saying that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., while not blameless in his entire legacy, did not intend to reject any of them.