Why America is in such a mess

A version of this piece appeared in The Sunday Times on July 2, 2022

None of us have seen the United States as divided and distressed as it is now. In 1968, Richard Nixon spoke darkly about cities in flames, but there were far fewer violent deaths on American streets than today.

In 1974, Gerald Ford told Americans that their ‘long national nightmare’ was over, but the Watergate hearings produced nothing remotely as disturbing as this week’s testimony about Donald Trump’s behaviour in the White House.

In the Reagan years, both homelessness and ostentatious wealth soared, but the gap between rich and poor was not as great then as it is now.

In the 1990s, riots in Los Angeles were a shocking reminder of the continuing reality of racial division, but at least the Supreme Court was still trying to enforce the Voting Rights Act.

Even in the early 2000s it was possible for Republicans like Senator John McCain to find common ground on issues like Federal support for education with liberal Senator Edward Kennedy.

But in the age of Twitter and Trump, all the evidence suggests that America is fracturing, perhaps irreparably so. The geographical ‘sorting’ of Americans – Democrats into cities and coastal states, Republicans in rural America – mean that it was entirely possible for a Biden voter in the last presidential election never to have met anyone who supported Trump. And vice versa, of course. There are no longer any shared sources of information—no American equivalent of the BBC. The internet has created mutually reinforcing information silos in which partisans trade in alternative facts. Watch the talk shows and listen to people in the streets: both sides genuinely believe that if the other wins, everything they hold dear will be destroyed. Some political scientists call it a “Cold Civil War”—two blocks representing alternative worldviews, marinaded in deep mistrust, yet seemingly locked into an impasse.

Of course, it is still true that in the US as everywhere most people avoid politics, never look at Twitter and wouldn’t dream of going on a protest march. In countless everyday ways, the country keeps on rolling along. But that is cold comfort, for it is always the case that in countries on the brink of civil war most people would prefer not to be in the fight until it becomes unavoidable.

And while division is now more serious than for decades, a longer historical perspective suggests that extreme polarisation is not the exception in American politics but the norm.

Until the 1950s, the Supreme Court allowed states huge latitude to evade constitutional provisions which, on parchment at least, guaranteed equal rights to all citizens. The so-called “Jim Crow” apartheid laws in the South meant that, for people of colour at least, travelling across state lines meant moving into dramatically different legal regimes. Maintaining racial segregation required authoritarian government including a heavily armed police and equally heavy restrictions on freedom of speech and private life. Policing sexual politics was an essential part of the system.

In the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, culture wars raged over alcohol and immigration, two forces that rural, Protestant Americans feared were destroying their republic. The Puritans thought they had won those battles when the 1919 Volstead Act in 1919 banned the sale of wine, beer and spirits, and a few years later Congress effectively cut off immigration from undesirable places like Eastern and Southern Europe. But those victories were short-lived, especially in the case of the unenforceable prohibition law – the classic case of counter-productive legislative over-reach which, as the journalist H. L. Mencken observed, five years after Prohibition came into effect: “there is not less drunkenness in the Republic, but more. There is not less crime, but more. There is not less insanity, but more.”

And then there was the actual Civil War of the 1860s, a conflict in which three-quarters of a million people died (in proportional terms the equivalent of about seven million today). Over the century and a half since the South was defeated in that war, a huge amount of emotional and literary effort has been expended on making the case that the war was a tragic accident, which somehow brought the country together, that despite taking up arms against the government the white South were somehow still fighting for American values.

The reality was that the Civil War was almost unavoidable. Institutionally and, in the end, emotionally, the United States could not hold together two incompatible regimes, one demanding Federal government protection for the principle of property in human beings, the other that thought domination by slaveholders destroyed freedom. Abraham Lincoln was correct to predict that a house divided against itself could not stand. The warring inhabitants of the house could not peaceably go their separate ways because the house itself—the “last best hope of earth”—was too valuable.

The Civil War remains the touchstone of American division. When Martin Luther King spoke in 1963 about his dream of racial unity, he did so from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and invoked ‘the great American’ in whose symbolic shadow he stood to make the case for equal rights as the unfinished business of the Civil War—which indeed it was. In the following decades, Congress, aided by a liberal Supreme Court, enumerated national rights basing them in almost every case on the revolutionary Fourteenth Amendment passed after the Civil War. National standards made America more uniform. The Justice Department used the Voting Rights Act to constrain states that tried to carry on suppressing the votes of undesirable minorities; discrimination against people based on sex was outlawed everywhere; state laws preventing inter-racial marriage were struck down; the right to contraception and abortion was established, eventually the rights of gay and lesbian people to marry. In 1972, the Court even imposed a moratorium on states’ rights to impose capital punishment, though that didn’t last long.

At the same time as a self-confident Federal government was making America a more unified legal regime, historic regional differences in wealth and education were beginning to lessen. Heavy industry declined in the Midwest and northeast and with it the unionised, blue-collar prosperity of the post-war years. Once thriving cities like Detroit or Milwaukee—even New York—became synonymous with crime and poverty as the middle classes fled. At the same time, it became fashionable to say that the old South of mint juleps and George Wallace was being transformed into the air-conditioned “sunbelt” of suburban swimming pools and Subarus. If Dixie was ‘rising’ and the rustbelt was falling, then maybe the old divides were fading.

But that process of convergence is now going into reverse. “Red” states do not just have lower incomes, but also lower life expectancy and poorer educational outcomes. Your right to join a union, the ease with which you can vote, and your access to health care varies depending on which state you live. As, from last week, does your ability to access abortion. The US has been diverging for two or three decades but the pace is increasing. It is easy to imagine that with the Republican majority on the Supreme Court baked in for decades and an electoral system that advantages rural Republican states the big Democratic states like California and New York will push for more and more autonomy. Blue America is a net contributor to the Federal budget while Red states like Mississippi, West Virginia and Alabama benefit from Federal ‘welfare’. “States’ Rights”—the most vacuous slogan in American history—may be repurposed by Liberals, accentuating the great American divergence.

Even the geographical lines of division are uncannily familiar: of the 15 slave states, thirteen voted for Trump in 2020 (the exceptions being Georgia which was on a knife edge, and Virginia, although West Virginia, which had been part of the state in 1860 voted for him overwhelmingly).

Perhaps the harsh truth is that the United States has always been a nation divided by a common flag. If so, the underlying issue is the question of what and who the Republic is for. On the surface, there has always been much that has united Americans. From the start, the new republic was not just another nation among nations but for most of its citizens—and many fellow-travellers abroad—it was a nation with a providential mission. It is a shining city on a hill (as Reagan used to say, paraphrasing John Winthrop). Although Americans on all sides think of themselves as in the vanguard of human progress, there is also a curious sense in which their politics is stuck in the past at its moment of imagined creation, just as was the case in other post-revolutionary societies such as the Soviet Union, or Cuba.

But if they share a reverence for their Revolution, Americans have never agreed on what it means. Did the rebellious colonists of 1776 create a republic dedicated to the radical idea of human equality? Or did they create a fundamentally conservative republic, shaped by Christian values? And, critically, who gets to decide and how do they do so? The most dangerous moments in US politics have been fights over who is “really” an American. And those fights have been made worse because the rules of the game—the process of determining elections—have never been settled. There is to this day no constitutionally guaranteed right to vote in the United States. Nor is there (with a few minor exceptions) any effort at state or Federal level to create non-partisan bodies to draw district lines or determining how votes are counted. The vulnerability of the system to bad faith actors has been dramatically demonstrated by the hearings in Congress on the January 6th insurrection.

When he left office in 1797, President George Washington warned of the curse of “faction”. His dream was of a republic run on consensual lines by silk-stockinged gentlemen farmers. But even as Washington retired to his wife and slaves in Mount Vernon, bitter partisanship convulsed the republic, and it did so for the same basic reason that it does today—partisans genuinely believed only they were true patriots and that their opponents were enemies of the republic. If that’s what you think, naturally you will do anything to win, including, if necessary, overturning election results that don’t go your way. 

So, if the republic has always been riven, how bad is the current crisis? Divided houses sometimes remain standing even if the inhabitants are ripping up the furniture and throwing it at each other. But if for the last half century, it has been possible to assume that the direction of travel for the United States lay in ever greater Union and a national government that guaranteed more and more rights on a national level, that assumption now looks misguided. The alternative future may be one in which the Federal government is effectively responsible for a massive military while Red and Blue America continue to drift apart, with even the single market coming under strain as states adopt differing standards while fighting over the allocation of national resources. The big test will be whether in such a scenario the top one percent who have successfully used public policy to massively increase their share of national wealth can be constrained by either “Blue” or “Red” America. Just as in the past, an apparent victory for one side can slip away if the middle class do not have a stake in the world that has been created. The United States has prospered, despite its divisions and institutional sclerosis, because – most of the time — it has given well-founded hope of prosperity to ordinary people. If that proves no longer to be true, then the game may finally be up.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

About aipsmith