Recently, Princeton professor and historian Alan Guelzo issued a stern warning: “We are threatened by fracture, and it’s a fracturing in which we cease to regard each other as fellow Americans.”
Division has become infused in popular culture and everyday life. Bob Hope and Johnny Carson once engaged in harmless political humor. Now comedians and late-night television hosts are intensely partisan and less funny. The COVID-19 experience has not escaped political strife. Wearing masks, opening schools and relaxing the shutdowns all took on a partisan coloring.
Surveys have found that many believe it is better to marry someone from outside your faith than someone with different politics. My father was a Republican and my mother was a Democrat. It didn’t affect their relationship or our family life. I doubt that was unusual in many families of that era. Do we now have two political and cultural coalitions of hatred?
Such a condition is unhealthy for a democracy. If we are to govern ourselves well, we need to reestablish a culture that promotes personal and political self-restraint. Finding common ground should be an essential part of our political and cultural agenda.
Of course, we cannot go back to the mid-20th century, when racial and religious discrimination was rife, women had constricted futures and gay people had to lead double lives. Today our culture and politics are open to those who were previously shut out.
But there are traps. The more our differences become a constant preoccupation, the more we become estranged. Competition in American politics should not be a struggle for dominance and perpetual reign. Dominance is the game for extremists. In Weimar Germany, the fascists and the communists vied for such dominance, and the fascists won. We remember today the consequences
Division, if not polarization, is not new to America. Past divisions have often been over one burning issue — slavery in the 1850s, domestic communism and McCarthyism in the 1950s, the Vietnam War in the 1960s.
Today’s polarization is not over one thing, but is in some sense about everything. It is threatening our values, history and historical identity. This burning rage makes compromises more difficult and solutions more vexing. These differences suffuse the daily flow of events. Everything from the legitimacy of our elections to the wearing of masks becomes a subject of bitter partisan dispute.
For a complex nation to adhere, its people must share and believe in its history, identity and values. Public education, military leadership, the journalistic profession and the police force must be above the political fray. For the health of our democracy, they should be part of the essential glue that keeps us together. No longer above the battle, however, they are right in the middle of it, where ideological turmoil has ripped them apart.
From their inception, the public schools were to be vehicles for teaching children from different backgrounds the value of being an American — one people. The words of the Declaration of Independence, the outlines of the Constitution, the sturdy jurisprudence of Supreme Court Chief Justice John Marshall and the inspiration of Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address were all a part of the American creed and engraved in every student’s mind. None of this was partisan. It was the center ground upon which all stood —and many died.
Too many educational institutions seem ready to shred this historic mission. Instead of building on our aspirations to be a colorblind meritocracy, there is a movement to repudiate it.
Public schools for the talented and gifted in New York and other cities are under attack as elitist, despite that fact that these students are of various races, religions and nationalities.
The military code precluded partisan politics. Recently, however, many retired senior officers have dropped the mantle of nonpartisanship. In 2020, a group of senior officers and national security officials endorsed Joe Biden and questioned Donald Trump’s fitness for office.
Not to be outdone, this year 124 retired admirals and generals published a letter questioning Biden’s mental capacity to hold office and the legitimacy of his election. Few things are more threatening to a democracy than a politicized and partisan military.
The journalistic profession once had an implicit code in which reporters concentrated on getting the story straight and left opinion writing to commentators. That code is under strain. Too many reporters push a political narrative into their accounts.
Police departments were never without scrutiny and criticism over such things as corruption and excessive force. In Minneapolis, their legitimacy is under attack. The “defund the police” movement has led to several cities cutting their the police budgets drastically. Consequently, many officers are leaving the force.
Should these divisions become irreconcilable, the country will be in a perpetual crisis. The violence of last summer and Jan. 6 could become commonplace.
We should heed the warning of the great Irish poet W.B. Yeats. This is an excerpt of “The Second Coming,” which he wrote in the aftermath of World War I: “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold; Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.”
A search for the center should be a quest for reconciliation. Getting there will require courage, foresight and considerable time. Our political, educational, religious and civic leaders need to guide the effort before all of us forget how.
Robert J. Bresler is professor emeritus of public policy at Penn State Harrisburg. He lives in Lancaster Township.