Is America splitting apart? Just a few years ago it would have seemed an absurd idea. Today the signs from the outside do not look good.
Take the events of recent months. In almost all of the world’s democracies, the immediate reaction to the Covid pandemic was an uptick in public trust in, and support for, their governments. Countries like Britain — said to be hugely divided over recent years — suddenly turned out to have significant secret wells of public trust in the authorities. A consensus grew around what was the best way to deal with the outbreak, based on the advice of the country’s leading scientists.
The Government (and a Conservative one at that) ordered everyone to stay in their homes and the public followed its orders. The Government told all young people not in a committed relationship or living with their partner to engage in months of chastity. And they did. If you had suggested this time last year that a Conservative Prime Minister — and Boris Johnson of all prime ministers — could have successfully ordered the youth of Britain to take up celibacy for the summer you would have been adjudged mad. And yet they did it; as did the public in democracies all around the world. Except for one.
The consensus and unanimity we saw in the spring may be splitting apart now, but it is worth recalling how impressive it was while it lasted.
Only America was exceptional, a land where even the arrival of a deadly global pandemic could not unify the nation even for a moment. Indeed, from the outset of the crisis American society polarised along the same political grooves that it has been stuck in over recent years, and it got worse.
People who supported the President broadly went along with his strategy, if he had one. Those who opposed him — not least a near totality of the American media — continued to find new arguments and justifications for saying that he did not deserve to govern, or to blame him for every aspect of the disaster.
Of course, this is an election year in the US, so perhaps it was inevitable that the pandemic and politicians’ reactions to it would be judged in this light. It is conceivable that if Britain were on the cusp of a General Election, or another vote on our membership of the EU, the spirit of co-operation between front benches might have lasted less time than it did. Perhaps Ms Sturgeon would have been even more on manoeuvres than she was, had she spied another independence referendum in under two months’ time.
But while it’s certainly arguable that Trump has aggravated America’s problems and divisions, he certainly didn’t create them. The divide long pre-dates him and has grown and grown in recent years, to the point where the different parties look increasingly irreconcilable. That is because these divisions go right to the core of what it means to be American.
When Eric Kaufmann recently carried out opinion polls on self-described “liberals” in the US, the results were startling but not surprising. For instance, around 80% of respondents said that they would approve of the writing of a new American constitution “that better reflects our diversity as a people”. A similar number said that they would approve of a new national anthem and flag, for the same reason.
And over the last few months, some of the more activist section of the American “liberal” tribe have taken matters into their own hands, with statues pulled down across the country, not just of Confederate generals or people associated with the divisive elements of American history, but men who once united the American public. Who once represented and defined their shared history as a great nation.
When statues of Thomas Jefferson and George Washington are pulled down, this no longer looks like a critique of certain aspects of American culture: it looks like an attack on the American Founding story. When senior Democrats like Tammy Duckworth — who has served in her country’s military — refuse to condemn attacks on statues of the Founding Fathers it becomes clear that this attitude is not confined to some street-protest fringes.
Nor is it limited to the fringes of the American media. Last year’s 1619 Project aimed to move the founding of the America nation back from the moment when the Declaration of Independence was signed in 1776, or when the Pilgrim Fathers left England in 1620: instead, the true founding date of America would be when slaves from Africa were first brought into the continent.
The goal is obvious and stated: to make slavery the defining, foundational issue of the republic. It would force America to be forever mired in the subject, a wound picked open on a daily basis. The 1619 Project is a deeply radical — and not very rigorous — historical project whose founders have encouraged the pulling down of statues and other direct action against the founding images of the republic.
Yet 1619 is not some fringe obsession on some obscure anti-American blog, but a prestigious rolling project started by the New York Times. Although the Times spends a great deal of time obsessively attacking Britain — the latest piece bemoaning the state of bridges in the London area — its real target is closer to home, its aim being to unweave the fabric of America.
There was a time when American anti-Americanism of this kind (analysed by Jean-François Revel, among others) was the preserve of a relatively small group of people, largely products of a few liberal universities.
But the events of recent months have revealed to even the most complacent observer that once-fringe ideas have spread out across the nation. And unrest like that which occurs nightly in Portland, Oregon, is concerning not because it is pointless but because it has a point. It has an aim. The protestors who have managed to get away with criminal acts night after night justify their violence not just by claiming that they are hunting down the apparently vast number of Nazis who inhabit their ultra-liberal state. They justify it by claiming that the republic itself is irredeemable: irredeemable because it is racist and irredeemable because it is founded in slavery and oppression.
Time and again in recent months it has become clear that the aim of many of the protestors is not to upgrade America — but to completely change it. Such people appear to labour under the misapprehension that if only they could get rid of everything to do with the country that they inhabit then they would live in a state of equality, liberty and bliss.
It is tempting to compare this error of thought with the misapprehension enjoyed by Kant’s dove, but if the protestors in Portland were offered the comparison, they would doubtless shoot it down by identifying it as yet another example of white supremacy.
It is becoming harder to communicate across the gulf, as, increasingly, the two Americas cannot consort or discuss with each other. And if there is one reason above all why that should be the case it is because they no longer have a shared story.
A portion of the American people still revere their history, the Founding Fathers, the constitution, flag, anthem and much more. They see it as symbols of a glorious past, a country which has fought for its own and others’ liberty, and the once-admired idea of American exceptionalism.
Another portion believe that America is exceptional only in being exceptionally bad. Rather than thinking well of their country or their forebears they see the whole American experiment as unusually unfair and uncommonly unequal. When a poll came out earlier this week suggesting that a majority of Americans had very little idea of what the Holocaust was, many people highlighted it as an example of American ignorance. In reality, most populations are ignorant of what has occurred in other countries (and indeed the poll was largely misreported).
Nor is it unusual for a population to be ignorant about large chunks of its own history. What is unusual, and odd and unhealthy, is for a large portion of a country to only have one set of ideas about their country’s past, and for all of those ideas to be negative.
Between these two positions, it is exceptionally hard to see how any consensus can be achieved. People like to pretend that if their candidate wins the election in November, the divisions in American society will stop. But they will not, because the divide now lies at the most fundamental, tectonic levels of the republic, about who the country is.
Historically speaking, such a divide will inevitably escalate into increasing violence and even civil war, unless stopped by some great unifying force that goes beyond party politics or identity. But there is no sign of such a thing on the horizon.