After this first midterm election of the Trump era, we’ll hear no end of analysis on what it all meant. But in the big picture, one needn’t await Tuesday’s results to see the lurid outlines of a national identity crisis, a paroxysm. Who are we? What’s to become of us?
Last month when the Kavanaugh storm was still raging, but before the latest wave of outbursts — from restaurant flash mobs to the mail bomber to the synagogue massacre — a good friend from college in the 1960s emailed me with his sadness and concern for an America that seems to be coming apart.
Nick is a Ph.D. professor and consultant who sides with the Democrats and has worked for some prominent ones. But even though we’ve been canceling each other’s votes since my Nixon days, we have that deep bond of affection and regard that transcends mutually respectful differences.
Whereas a great swath of our fellow citizens have lately come to disdain any notion of mutual respect when it comes to political and cultural disagreements. And how that happened is really the question my old friend was anguishing about.
I want to post what we said to each other in the opening round of what’s sure to be a continuing — and I hope constructive — search for common ground in a time where that seems so scarce. Nick wrote:
John, allowing that you are the conservative thinker and activist I trust most, I write to ask a simple question: Where do we go from here?
I am most troubled by the widening divides that have emerged in our national dialogues. Dialogues? Wrong! Rather we have moved from those historic civil dialogues, beyond loud, disjointed debates, to now so much just shouting in the wind.
These divides have reached, I think, a point where no one is listening to the proverbial “other.” Not to anyone beyond our own personal coffee klatch or gathering of drinking pals. We are moving toward an irresolvable battle of cultures. It is no longer a squabble about best politics and policy. Civil discourse is gone. Real life battle-lines are being drawn.
We are becoming, in Lincoln’s words, a nation “divided against itself.” How long, at this rate, can we stand? The divides are now so raw and irrational. It is to the point that I’m beginning to sense, in some small way, what it must have been like in the late 1850s. Before the Great Clash!
What might you have to offer to soften my growing concerns? Not so much for ourselves, but for our children and grandchildren. Anything?
To which I replied this way:
Nick, thanks for being in touch. I always enjoy thinking things through with you. You’re right, we have not seen such stormy times since the 1960s, if then. It seems we have lost our grip on how to be one nation under God, one people in ordered liberty. We’ve lost our way as a country.
I'll try to answer your question not in terms of labels or issues, but in terms of the great ideas — “self-evident truths,” as Jefferson called them, now out of fashion — that durably bound us together over the centuries from the 1600s to the 1900s. That’s really what we’ve lost, I fear.
America hung together for as long as it did because of a shared worldview inherited from thinkers such as Locke, Newton, Milton, Shakespeare, and of course the Bible. Before that, Aquinas, Augustine, Cicero, and all the way back to Aristotle.
It gave us a context for morality, civics, dispute resolution, human possibilities and human limitations, even in the worst struggles over independence or slavery. It gave us boundaries to restrain the fiery divisive passions.
Now all of that is largely gone. It has been replaced by the amoral ideas of Darwin, Marx, Freud, or more recently the behaviorist Skinner, the feminist MacKinnon, the race warrior Malcolm X, the deconstructionist Foucault. Nietzsche smiles in the background. He foretold it all — “the will to power” subsumes all else.
So much for what’s in the air. On the ground, I’ll concede that conservatives, moderates, and progressives all bear some of the blame for our splintering into tribes and our absolutizing or idolizing of politics, the supposed path to heaven on earth — utopia.
But there is an asymmetry. More of the rage, fury, blaming, shaming, threats, demonizing, dehumanizing, victim guilt trips, and overall polarizing come from the left than from the right. A fair observer must admit as much.
And that’s only to be expected. Because with the old Judeo-Christian religious framework ever weaker, God less and less revered, we take sides between secular religions of self-responsibility accountable to tradition on the one hand, versus self-indulgence justified by “progress" on the other.
Easy to guess which side more readily vents righteous intolerance and anger. But to repeat, there’s blame to go around.
Civil war, often fretted about these days, won’t occur because passions aren’t that high and the means of coming to blows, faction vs. faction, aren’t available in our tech/industrial age as they were in the relatively decentralized 1850s you alluded to. But seething hostilities within a house divided aren’t something we want for our kids and grandkids, as you said. Gotta start the healing somehow.
What to do? Keep trying to rebuild and renew what America used to be, bit by bit in our immediate surroundings, for as long as we’re able to stick around. Not a dramatic or showy role, but the only one with integrity, it seems to me.
There stands our preliminary exchange of views ahead of election day; actually my views and Nick's forebodings. Notice neither of us mentioned President Trump, implicitly agreeing he’s more a symptom of America’s identity crisis than a cause of it.
Nor did either of us invoke the tired cliches of “civility” or “hate,” conceding (I assume) the one is too bland a concept and the other too much of a devil word, to facilitate clear thinking. I tried to be measured, mild, and tentative with Nick while politely standing my ground.
And for two reasons, I didn’t press him on what our institutions, political and otherwise, should start doing to make things better.
One, that didn’t seem a fruitful way to move the conversation along between a conservative and a liberal at this early stage. And two, I don’t honestly believe the path forward right now lies through institutional action.
Rather it must start with a rebirth of values and standards, rooted in the recovery of a worldview this country long thrived upon before rashly throwing it away in the 20th century.
Which will take decades or even centuries of patient rededication by individuals and society’s “little platoons” to accomplish, just as it took that long to gradually cast off. This Tuesday, or any one election, whatever the outcome, is scarcely a blip in that process
I’ll need more back-and-forth with my old classmate and soccer captain before his assent to any of this is gained or not. But Nick and I have made a start, with good will and listening hearts. We’ll continue in the same vein and see where it leads.
With whom are you having, or could you begin to have, that kind of friendly dialogue in search of healing for our land?