This is a follow up essay to last week’s article "A House Still Divided," which ended by indicating that our central polarizing problem was “our failure to agree on which kind of country we wish”--one in which whites dominate or a truly multiracial democratic society.
Actor Jeff Daniels spoke poignantly to this point recently on the “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert.” Explaining to Colbert why he was going to return to the stage role of Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird, he said he wanted to see now what this play about “white blindness” means to people after the killing of George Floyd by a police officer in May 2020. After the murder Daniels thought some white people began to think that they had no idea they “were only taught one side of American history.” So he began to read authors like Ta-Nehisi Coates. The actor told Colbert, “We have an opportunity in this country right now to welcome in a new America. We really do.” He added that the play and novel it is based on affirm that “there’s goodness in everyone and you just have to care enough to look for it.” But he asked, “is there goodness in everyone in 2021?” He’s was not sure, but thought people now have to choose whether they’re for eliminating “systematic racism” or not.
In a 2017 article entitled “Who Are We?” conservative New York Times columnist Ross Douthat also touched on what Daniels referred to as “white blindness.” He noted that many Trump supporters “prefer the melting pot” concept of America to multiculturalism, and prefer a history that stresses our white Christian background, the Pilgrims and the Founders. Moreover, “Trump’s ascent is, in part, an attempt to restore their story to preeminence.” Douthat realized, however, that such a vision of white superiority was no longer suitable.
History has since testified to how hard it has been for different nationalities or ethnic or religious groups to live harmoniously together.
Related to Daniels’s hope for a “new America” and Douthat’s realization of the need for a new vision is historian Jill Lepore’s Foreign Affairsessay “A New Americanism: Why a Nation Needs a National Story.” In it she asks, “what would a new Americanism and a new American history look like?” Her answer (both in her essay and in her book These Truths: A History of the United States) is similar to that of Daniels--our new Americanism would accept and celebrate our ethnic, religious, and gender-identity diversity.
A new “national story” is also proposed by the organization More in Common (MiC). In its valuable report Hidden Tribes: A Study of America's Polarized Landscape, it states that “America today needs a renewed sense of national identity, one that fosters a common vision for a future in which every American can feel that they belong and are respected.”
Our present polarization problem is also related to the 1619 Project--“intended to offer a new version of American history in which slavery and white supremacy become the dominant organizing themes”--and all the controversy it has caused. Despite criticisms of the project, even some of its most prominent well-informed critical historians state that they “applaud all efforts to address the enduring centrality of slavery and racism to our history.”
Yet, despite President Biden’s announced intention to reverse our extreme polarization, it will be a herculean task. New York Times columnist Charles Blow recently wrote “Democrats need to stop talking about reaching across the aisle, compromise and common ground.” The Republicans, he believes, care only about “winning and retaining power, defending the narrative of America that white people created and protecting the power and wealth they accrued because of it.”
And the problem is not just in the USA, but one occurring globally, with the central question being, “Can different ethnic groups live harmoniously and productively together? Can they flourish when united in one state?”
Already in 1861, John Stuart Mill wrote,
Free institutions are next to impossible in a country made up of different nationalities. . . . . The influences which form opinions and decide political acts are different in the different sections of the country. . . . The same books, newspapers, pamphlets, speeches, do not reach them. One section does not know what opinions or what instigations are circulating in another.
True, today in the USA we are not talking about the clash of “different nationalities,” but other differences including ethnic ones. Yet with some slight adjustments, Mill’s words are still relevant.
History has since testified to how hard it has been for different nationalities or ethnic or religious groups to live harmoniously together--from 1914’s assassination of Austrian archduke Franz Ferdinand by a Bosnian Serb to the 1990s, when conflicts in the former Yugoslavia among Serbs, Croats, Bosnian and Kosovar Muslims and other ethnic groups led to the deaths of hundreds of thousands (outside of Western nations similar clashes have also occurred). In addition, countries where different nationalities once attempted to coexist--for example, Austria-Hungary, the USSR, Yugoslavia, and Czechoslovakia--eventually broke apart. And today, many Western countries like the USA, France, Germany, and Italy are wrestling with the problem of refugees and immigrants, legal and illegal, and how (or whether) to integrate them. In the case of Europe, many such individuals are Muslim, creating greater difficulties for those who insist on maintaining their Christian cultural heritage. Opposition to more immigration has helped fuel the growth of right-wing movements, not only in the USA but also in Europe.
On the positive side, however, as I indicated in a November 2020 essay, President Biden realizes the need to reduce polarization. As he said at that time,
The purpose of our politics, the work of the nation, isn’t to fan the flames of conflict, but to solve problems, to guarantee justice, to give everybody a fair shot, to improve the lives of our people. . . . We don’t have any more time to waste on partisan warfare.
Having been born in a rust-belt town (Scranton, Pennsylvania), the son of Catholic parents with mixed ancestry (Irish, English, French), his dad once having been a car salesman, and having played high school football and baseball, Biden has been able to empathize with working-class Americans. The various tragedies he has suffered further help him to identify with common people who have experienced many sorrows. He and his second wife, Jill, in many ways exemplify the American Dream, the belief that whatever one’s background, hard work can bring about a better life for one’s family. Thus, President Biden is well positioned to offer an updated version of that “Dream,” one that would be a “compelling, unifying vision that a majority of Americans could embrace.” It would resemble more the visions suggested in the 1960s by MLK and Robert Kennedy, and later by Congressman John Lewis--in MLK’s words, “when all of God's children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual: ‘Free at last!’”
But, as MiC’s Hidden Tribes report has observed, “much more is needed than just powerful words,” even if they are from a president who offers a unifying vision. Although Biden seems very mindful of helping not only minorities, but also the white working class, how successful he will be in getting his plans through Congress remains in doubt. If Charles Blow is right (see above) that Republicans care only about “winning and retaining power, defending the narrative of America that white people created” then Biden’s chances of overseeing fundamental and significant changes are indeed slim.
MiC’s Hidden Tribes report also mentions the importance of politicians and activists emphasizing “values that unify the nation.” Partly because Republicans have often stressed “family values,” Democrats have not emphasized them enough. But as Obama wrote in his The Audacity of Hope, “Democrats are wrong to run away from a debate about values,” and the question of values should be at “the heart of our politics.”
One value the ex-president emphasized was empathy--“the heart of my moral code.” Besides empathy, other values like tolerance, humility, compassion, truth-seeking, and a sense of humor could--if embraced across our political divide--also help us overcome extreme polarization. As Robert Kennedy said after MLK was shot:
what we need in the United States is not hatred; what we need in the United States is not violence and lawlessness, but is love, and wisdom, and compassion toward one another, and a feeling of justice toward those who still suffer within our country, whether they be white or whether they be black.
Still another recommendation of Hidden Tribes is for artists and media to “spotlight the extraordinary ways in which Americans in local communities build bridges and not walls.” As David Brooks suggested in mid-2018, mayors and governors can sometimes produce better results because they are more pragmatic and less ideological.
Localism stands for the idea that there is no one set of solutions to diverse national problems. Instead, it brings conservatives and liberals together around the thought that people are happiest when their lives are enmeshed in caring face-to-face relationships, building their communities together.
In recent years various local groups and programs have attempted to decrease polarization. To name just two, there are the Braver Angels, begun in 2016, and Bridging the Gap, a program that beginning in January 2020 brought together for dialogue students from “Oberlin College, a bastion of liberal thinking, and Spring Arbor University, a predominantly conservative, Christ-centered institution.” Braver Angels was first called Better Angels when in December 2016 a group of Trump and Hilary Clinton supporters got together in Ohio and formed a “national citizens’ movement to reduce political polarization in the United States.”
Emphasizing local cooperation can build upon the strong tradition of town meetings that so impressed the French visitor Alexis de Tocqueville in the early nineteenth century. And upon NBC Radio’s America’s Town Meeting of the Air, which debuted in 1935 and which, according to historian Lepore, “aimed to break radio listeners out of their political bubbles.” She quotes its moderator “If we persist in the practice of Republicans reading only Republican newspapers, listening only to Republican speeches on the radio, attending only Republican political rallies, and mixing socially only with those of congenial views . . . and if Democrats . . . follow suit, we are sowing the seeds of the destruction of our democracy.” (See here for similar remarks by President Obama in 2010.)
Another tradition that can be built upon is that of prominent leaders who have urged cooperation, dialogue, and compromise. In various essays (see, e.g., here and here), I have quoted on this subject such individuals as Benjamin Franklin, Dorothy Day, John and Ted Kennedy, conservatives Russell Kirk and Ronald Reagan, and Pope Francis.
While pragmatic approaches on the local level can help overcome excessive partisanship, so too can such steps on a national level. In his classic The Varieties of Religious Experience (1902), William James wrote, "What we now need to discover in the social realm is the moral equivalent of war: something heroic that will speak to men as universally as war does.” During wars, people often come together to fight a common enemy.
Today, the USA and the rest of the world face an enemy just as dangerous as many of our past wartime foes--climate change. In a recent interview--after being asked “What do we do now that humanity will be judged for most harshly in 100 years?--former President Obama answered, “If we don’t get a handle on climate change, then if there’s anybody around to judge us, they’ll judge us pretty harshly on it, because the data is here. We know it. And we have the tools to make real progress with it.”
Although many of Trump supporters have been deniers or minimizers of man-made climate change, its continuing impact is likely to continue changing some minds, and provide a major challenge and opportunity for those wanting to work together, for all those concerned about passing on a liveable world to future generations.
Without doubt, polarizing forces are strong, especially in politics and media, and our future--more divisiveness or increased cooperation--is up to us. The many battlefronted conflict pitting white male dominance against true equality for all is a cosmic struggle akin to that poet John Milton described in his Paradise Lost (17th century) “between God, Satan, and humankind for the future direction of history.” (Those unfamiliar with Milton’s classic might prefer a Star Wars analogy.)
Amid this exhausting and prolonged conflict, we can look to both the past and future for inspiration. During his 27 years in prison, South Africa’s future president Nelson Mandela never gave up hope he could bring apartheid down, and he gave the name Zaziwe, meaning “Hope,” to one of his granddaughters. Looking to the future, futurist Tom Lombardo writes in his Future Consciousness, “hope is the engine and the fuel of flourishing.” Like Mandela, people must not sacrifice their ideals; but like Lincoln on the eve of our Civil War, they can hope that “the better angels of our nature” will prevail.