Victor Davis Hanson
Will Our Discord End in the Streets?
The red/blue map of the recent 2018 American midterm election confirmed the picture of a 50/50 divided nation. The House of Representatives went Democratic by a narrow margin; the Senate stayed Republican by only a few seats. Each side promised to press on with its own antithetical agendas.
Democrats in the House are likely not to be satisfied by stymieing Trump’s “Make America Great Again” policies, when they think they can impeach him and thereby discredit his entire conservative project. Republicans will respond by jamming through as many strict-constructionist judicial nominees as they can with a now larger, more conservative Senate majority. If a new Democratic House impeaches Trump, a new fortified Republican Senate will never convict him.
It seems the country is back to 1860 on the eve of the Civil War, rather than in 2018, during the greatest age of affluence, leisure, and freedom in the history of civilization. The respective midterm agendas of our two factions were not reconcilable. How do those who wish to abolish immigration enforcement, open the border to create favorable electoral demographics, provide free health care for all, cancel student debt, slash defense spending, and double-down on identity politics reconcile with traditionalists who insist on national sovereignty, a strong military, secure borders, market-based health care and higher education, and equality of opportunity rather than of result, in which race and gender remain incidental not essential to our characters?
The ancient historian Thucydides called similar civil discord that finally tore apart the fifth-century B.C. Greek city-states “stasis.” He saw stasis as a bitter civil war in which the revolutionary masses (with the occasional help of the very wealthy) were pitted against the traditionalist middle and upper classes. In such times, the middle vanished as it divided up and fled to the respective margins.
Something like that ancient divide is now infecting every aspect of American life.
Americans increasingly are either proud of past U.S. traditions, ongoing reform, and current American exceptionalism, or they insist that the country was hopelessly flawed at its birth—racist, sexist, homophobic, and nativist—and must be radically reinvented to atone for its original sins. The agendas of the two near deadlocked candidates—Brian Kemp and Stacey Abrams—in the governor’s race in Georgia were as different as Mars is from Venus.
No sphere of life is immune from the subsequent politicization: not movies, television, professional sports, late-night comedy, or colleges. Recently, Antifa protestors swarmed the home of Fox News anchorman Tucker Carlson, issuing threats to his family inside in ostensible hopes of forcing Carlson to temper conservative views. Threatening senators, disrupting Congressional hearings, and pounding on the closed doors of the Supreme Court are now near daily occurrences. And sometimes the violence grows lethal, such as the recent shooting of Rep. Steve Scalise by an unhinged Bernie Sanders supporter and the murder of 11 innocent worshipers in a Pittsburgh synagogue by a venomous anti-Semite. Inert bombs were mailed to liberal celebrities and politicos by a crazed Trump fan, even as public figures continue to call for President Trump to be shot, blown up, beat up, and burned up. Amid the vicious discourse and violent activism, even hurricanes are typically leveraged to advance global warming political agendas and the greater need for federal services.
What is causing America to turn differences into these bitter hatreds—and why now?
The internet and social media often descend into an electronic lynch mob. In a nanosecond, an insignificant local news story goes viral. Immediately hundreds of millions of people use it to drum up the evils or virtues of either progressivism or conservatism.
Anonymity is a force multiplier of these tensions. Fake online identities provide cover for ever greater extremism—on the logic that no one is ever called to account for his or her words. Individual nonentities can assume importance the more they sound extreme, unhinged, and vicious.
Speed is also the enemy of common sense and restraint. Millions of bloggers rush to be the first to post their take on a news event, without much worry about whether it soon becomes a “fake news” moment of unsubstantiated gossip and fiction. The 24/7 cable news media does the same; always the more rapid, the more sensational, the more polarizing the story wins audience share. “Analytics” divides us up in every conceivable fashion to predict voting preferences.
Globalization has both enriched and impoverished—and also further divided—America. Those whose muscular labor could be outsourced abroad to less expensive, less regulated countries were liable to lose their jobs or find their wages slashed. They were written off as “losers.” Americans whose professional expertise profited from vast new world markets became even richer and preened as “winners.” Cause was confused with effect: the underemployed who took opiates did not drive away industrial jobs; instead factories left and the subsequent wreckage proved fertile ground for addiction.
Geography—history’s intensifier of civil strife—further fueled the growing economic and cultural divide. Americans are increasingly self-selecting as red and blue states. The recent midterm election map of red/blue congressional districts amplified the 2016 Electoral College map: two bicoastal corridors of blue urban progressives bookending a sea of red conservatives in between.
Liberals gravitate to urban coastal-corridor communities of hip culture, progressive lifestyles, and lots of government services. Government-mandated equality is the subtext of popular culture.
Conservatives increasingly move to the lower-tax, smaller-government, and the more traditional heartland, where liberty, freedom, and tradition are seen as neither selfish nor old-fashioned.
Lifestyles in San Francisco and Toledo are so different that it’s almost as if they’re too on two different planets. When the Obama administration ran ads for its Affordable Care Act with a photo of an insipid “pajama boy” sipping hot chocolate in his jammies and praising Obamacare, half the country found him a wimp who needed to get dressed and get to work.
Legal, diverse, meritocratic, and measured immigration has always been America’s great strength. Assimilation, integration, and intermarriage within the melting pot used to turn new arrivals into grateful Americans in a generation or two.
But when immigration is often illegal, not diverse and massive, then balkanization follows. Currently, the country hosts 60 million non-natives—the largest number of immigrants in America’s history. One of four Californians was not born in the United States.
Yet unlike the past, America often does not ask new immigrants to learn English and assimilate as quickly as possible. Immigration is instead also politicized. Impoverished, non-English speaking newcomers are seen as potentially useful voting blocs for progressives: the less quickly they integrate, assimilate, and assume an American identity, the more they are likely to seek tribal representation and vote accordingly.
Indeed, tribalism is the new American norm. Gender, sexual orientation, religion, race, and ethnicity are now essential, not incidental, to who we are. When pundits talk of midterm election results, they refer to blue-state constituencies as “communities,” as in the voting patterns of the “LGBT” or “Latino” “community.” Red-state voters are referenced more by class: the “working classes” or “rural folks.”
Americans too often scramble to divide into victimized blocs. Hyphenated and newly accented names serve as advertisements that particular groups have unique affiliations beyond their shared Americanism. Progressive darling and Texas Democratic Senatorial candidate Robert Francis O’Rourke sought to assume a Latin identity by using a Latino nickname, “Beto,” to showcase his multicultural affinities. In contrast, his conservative Cuban-American opponent, Senator Ted Cruz, preferred the melting-pot tradition of dropping his Latino birth name Rafael.
America is often the target of unrealistic criticism—as if it is suddenly toxic because it is not perfect. Fewer appreciate that the far worse alternatives abroad are rife with racism, sexism, civil strife, corruption, and poverty unimaginable in the U.S. Caravans of Central Americans in schizophrenic fashion approach the U.S. southern border, waving flags of countries they under no circumstance wish to return to, already suing the United States for its culpable behavior—even as they refuse generous asylum from kindred-speaking Mexico. It is as if newcomers are saying to Americans, “because we dislike your culture so much, you must allow us to join it.”
The last few elections, and the recent 2018 midterm, added to the growing abyss.
The old Democratic Party of John F. Kennedy and Bill Clinton is now trending into a radical democratic socialist party. Meanwhile, the old Republican Party is mostly gone, replaced by tea party movements and the new Donald Trump base. Yet the country remains a center-right nation that rejects progressive radicalism. Republican candidates who rejected Trumpism as too conservative more often lost their races. Democratic candidates who insisted they were hardcore progressives rather than centrists failed too.
Former President Barack Obama came into office from Congress with the most left-wing voting record in the Senate. In contrast, Trump was elected as the first president without either prior military or political experience.
Obama issued dozens of controversial “pen and phone” executive orders, bypassing Congress. And Trump is systematically overturning them—doing so with similar executive orders.
Will America keep dividing and soon resort to open violence, as happened in 1861? One might think by watching the recent hysterics at the nomination hearings of Brett Kavanaugh, the anti-Semitic terrorist attack on a Pittsburgh synagogue, or the inert bombs mailed to prominent Democratic politicos and celebrities. Hollywood has turned up its assassination chic, as stars argue only over whether Trump should be blown up, cut up, shot up, or beat up.
Will Americans reunite and bind up our wounds, as we did following the upheavals of the 1930s Great Depression or after the protests of the 1960s?
The answer lies within each of us.
Every day we will either treat each other as fellow Americans, with far more uniting than dividing us, or we will continue on the present path that eventually ends in something like a hate-filled Iraq, Rwanda, or the Balkans.
Victor Davis Hanson is a classicist and historian at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University, and the author of the recently released The Second World Wars: How the First Global Conflict Was Fought and Won.