Yuval Levin’s recent book, The Fractured Republic, argues that the two major political parties are trapped in nostalgic fantasy, fantasies that are so inimically at odds with each other that there is little room for agreement at the most basic, unconscious, and compelling levels.
Republicans, Levin argues, long for a golden age of homogeneity, one in which family values were clear and universally accepted. School children were apple-cheeked, happily preparing for the Christmas pagent, sticking gummy whiskers to their pre-pubescent cheeks to portray Wise Men bringing gifts to the Christ Child. Names were easy to pronounce; faces were familiar. Oh, and the might of the only power unscathed by invasion, still capable of large-scale production, the only nation wth nuclear weaponry, the only nation with a rebouding economy confirmed the accession ofthe United Sates to the position of preeminent world power.
Democrats hearken back to the New Deal and four terms of FDR’s presidency during which the extension of governmental involvement in the running of the nation’s economy not only brought the nation back from depression but began a process of inclusion. Unions and newly enfranchised minorities, immigrants and idealists joined together to build an America that was both secure and prosperous.
There’s nothing wrong with looking back, seeking the foundations of belief that bring political conviction … unless core beliefs are bound to circumstances that no longer exist. There’s nothing simple about diversity, or globalization, or a technological revoution, but virtually none of the elements of contemporary realpolitik proceed from convictions commonly accepted if not commonly held.
We are nearing the end of a disturbingly contentious season of primary campaigns, lacking both civility and promise. Both Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump have tapped into the frustration and confusion that afflicts a nation in transition. Trump looks back to a time before people of color had a place in the nation and Sanders promises the revolution that did not happen in the wake of activist protest in the 1960’s. Libertarians may appeal to moderate Republicans and the Sanders Democrats; a conservative independent candidate may draw some of the true believers in the Republican Party and evangelicals who find Trump transparently amoral. It appears unlikely that the general election will bring compromise and the establishment of common ground. Reporters facing a Trump salvo in which he called a reporter from ABC a “sleaze” asked if this was the tone and tenor we might expect durng the course of a Trump presidncy. The presumptive nominee assured the press that his contempt for the dishonest press would remin unabated. On the left, the most vehement of Sanders supporters refer to “Hitlery” Clinton as a marionette dancing to the tunes played by Wall Street.
At some point, fissures become fractures. The contempt that each set of contenders feels for the others leaves little room for compromise or cooperation. We’ve already seen the administration of the essential functions of goverment paralyzed as partisan battles take precedence over efficacy; it may be that even at this juncture, too many people have been too wounded to work shoulder to shoulder with the other. At some point, the complexity of ordering a thoroughly intricate global structure predicts plutocracy at best and tyrany and kleptocracy at worst. Nasty racial and ethnic bullying and natavist thuggery are distractions, momentary emotional release, but the fabric of civility, once torn, is not easy to patch up again.
What can hold the Republic together? What truths, finally, do we truly find self-evident?
Duty, Honor, Country? All men created equal? Honest pay for an honest day’s work? The best government is that which governs least? True Democracy proceeds from enlightened self-interest? A woman has the right to choose? God as revealed in scripture holds the nation to absoute standards of belief and behavior? No child should go to bed hungry? We are a nation of immigrants celebrating diversity? We are a nation founded on Christian principles? We are an English speaking people? What is good for Wall Street is good for the USA? Protected land should be held in trust for all Amercans? We have an obligation to protect a fragile world environment? We have an obligation to bring American democracy to other nations? We have an obligation to secure the well being of America first? The nation exists in order to secure the liberty and dignity of each individual? Each state has the right to order its own affairs?
Transient isssues capture the headlines, as the furor over bathrooms suggests. The issues in that case are complicated and reflect differences of conviction that go way byond the actions of a governor or state legislature. At the core, the issue is really who do we see as human?
Who do we see as human, and what obligation do we as a nation have to secure their well being?
Much has been made of the regional character of Amercan lives and politics. We can talk about Red States and Blue States, about Cascadia and the mythical country of Jefferson, the Foundry, Dixie, the Breadbasket, MexAmerica, the Islands, and Ecotopia, the Nine Nations of North America, about bio-regions and social norms, but the fissures, even within these subsets of nationhood, are clear and dangerous. The sensibilities of Portland and Eugene are not the sensibilities of Pendleton and Burns. Bakersfield is not Berkeley.
Fractious and angry rhetoric may accomplish what civil war, depression, and riots in city streets could not. No matter the outcome of this election, we may remain a nation at war with itself.