We are as fundamentally divided as a people now in 2011 as we were in the 1850s, just prior to the Civil War. Back then the division centered around the issues of racially-based slavery and the proper relationship between the state and federal governments. Today the divide is defined by an economically based servitude and the nature of the relationship between the individual and the coercive power of government of all levels.
In the 1850s there were people on both sides of the divide who saw the inherent dangers the our situation but they had no real solution, proving helpless to prevent the drift toward the Civil War. And as Shelby Foote, the eminent Civil War historian points out, the Civil War was the result of our failure to do what Americans had previously done so well, i.e. compromise. There were back then two groups of irreconcilable ideologues, abolitionists who considered slavery a moral evil, not a political issue, and ardent states’-rights proponents who saw the power of Washington in any area of their lives as a threat to their sovereignty. These people identified themselves more closely as members of a particular group (their state) than as American citizens. For them the form of bondage that most offended was the subservience of the South to the Northern bankers, shippers, and industrialists. Today there are many Americans who have a greater allegiance to an ethnic, cultural, religious or economic interest than to our national interest.
It might be instructive for Americans, and especially our leaders, to go back and revisit the years from 1850 to the outbreak of hostilities in 1861. I doubt they will bother.
Yet I believe that in some sense, perhaps only lightly felt, Americans realize the perilous nature of our present situation, at least to the extent that they understand we can’t stay on our present course. (In a July 10 Rasmussen poll, 68% of Americans surveyed said the Unites States was heading in the wrong direction, only 25% in the right direction.)
I believe that ordinary Americans are looking for someone, a leader who could transcend our entrenched interest group-centered attitudes and bring us together. That was, after all, a part of Obama’s appeal in 2008 when he said “there is not a conservative America and a liberal America, there is the United States of America. There is not a white America, a black America, a latino America or an Asian America, there is the United States of America.”
Whatever happened to that idea? More and more it seems these words were just empty campaign rhetoric.The man whom so many hoped would take blue states and red states and turn them into a Purple Nation has become just another political Great Divider. And our divide is wider and seems more insurmountable than ever.
So here we are now, no longer One Nation, Indivisible. And lacking the leaders with the courage to risk offending their various political bases. In one sense, we are reaping just what we have been sowing for more than a generation. We no longer imbue our children with a sense of commonly held ideals, we no longer tell them our National Story. The road to political power is now paved with the efforts to get our fellow citizens to see themselves as belonging to specific interest groups (white, black, latino, male, female, gay, lesbian, transgendered, liberal/progressive, conservative, senior citizens, union members, public service employees, gun owners, etc. etc.) and if enough members of these various groups can be convinced of their own victim-hood and entitlement, so much the better. If enough of these interest groups can then be cobbled together into temporary electoral coalitions, you win.
Shared sacrifice? Common purpose? Those ideas are for chumps, quaint perhaps, but not really meaningful in our world today.
The Civil War was the greatest political calamity our nation has ever faced, It is a pity we haven’t remembered its lessons. The Great Depression of the 1930s was the worst economic calamity we have endured. The economic collapse of 2008-09 was proof that we turned our backs on the harsh lessons the Depression taught us about economic safeguards and restraints, and about fiscal responsibility.
Both the Civil War and Great Depression severely tested the bonds of our nation and its people. Putting the pieces back together in each instance was a long, painful, and sacrificial process.
Getting out of our current political, social, and economic mess will also be slow and painful, and it will certainly entail sacrifices. Are we any longer up to the task?
My guess is no, not as we are presently disposed. What will be required is a different type of political leadership, perhaps a different shared definition of both Fulfillment and Success, and the renewal of a sense of shared identity and purpose (if in fact these things any longer exist in America). Here’s hoping it is not already too late.