Well, as united as we have ever been, which is to say (with the exception of world wars)—not very.
We are certainly structurally united and we fought an incredibly costly civil war to prove it, but we have never been united as to thought, faith, or purpose, and that’s a good thing. Those differences nourish creativity and advance progress. Our diversity of thought, faith, and purpose is what has, or had, propelled our country into world-wide prominence and leadership in virtually every field of endeavor.
But one of the unwritten, but widely understood, canons of the American way has been the willingness of the body politic to accept the reality that sometimes one side would win and sometimes the other side would win. On balance we would move forward, although sometimes not as fast as some would like and, of course, sometimes faster than some would like.
But the national temperament seems different today. Whether one observes those on the political left or the political right, a remarkable number of people in both parties seem to loathe rather than to merely disagree with the views of those of the other party. And, in too many cases, it seems those in one party have actually begun to loathe those who openly identify with the other party. The mood in the country seems somewhat reminiscent of the years when Franklin Pierce and James Buchanan followed one another to lead the nation (or failed to lead it), and America drifted into the greatest and deadliest intramural conflict in its history. The polarization in the country today is reminiscent of the polarization that consumed the Pierce and Buchanan presidencies. And that is not a good thing.
Presidents Pierce and Buchanan were inept, but not malevolent men. Buchanan was remarkably well-credentialed for the job and was, actually, an honest and decent man. He is also number one on just about every historian’s list as the worst President in American history, with Franklin Pierce giving him a pretty good challenge for that title. Pierce and Buchannan were simply very wrong for their time. They were not unifying leaders; they were, instead, divisive leaders, and, in pretty short order, the nation paid a terrible price (Civil War) for their time in leadership.
While we are, as a nation, constitutionally united, we have drifted into a period of extreme political polarization. Make no mistake about it— that’s dangerous. The voices of dissent are, today, often expressed as a loathing of the other rather than mere expressions of differences of opinion. Those who oppose President Trump, oppose him totally. Everything he does is wrong, everything he does is for his own profit or for his own political gain, and nothing he does can possibly be in the interest of the country.
Similarly, those who support President Trump generally support him totally. Every falsehood is tolerated; every display of demagoguery is justified or rationalized, and every attack directed at any opponent is abided. Politically, the Trump phenomenon represents the greatest cult of personality in our history. It is probable that millions of Americans suspect that former Congressman and current cable talk-show personality, Joe Scarborough, killed Lori Klausutis, an aide who worked in his Florida office when he was a congressman, simply because President Trump, with no known justification, hypothesized such speculation. President Trump has, inexplicably, been an exceptional uniter within his party, but an unprecedented divider within the American body politic.
Events have convulsed America for most of this year. Whether it is the now long-running COVID-19 viral attack on mankind or, this week, the dreadful and deadly attack by a white policeman on George Floyd, a black man in Minneapolis, we have been shaken to our core. Once again, our cities, first traumatized by the horror of police brutality on full display on television, are now being traumatized by protests that have grown violent, and rioters who are burning and pillaging.
These events would be horrific at any time, but the consequences are greatly magnified in an election year, especially this particular election year when the nation is so polarized.
Think for a moment of the preamble of our Constitution. It sets out our only unifying mandate. “We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.” That was then, but this is now.
Seventeen years ago, an excellent essay published in Public Administration Review, by Arjen Boin and Paul ‘t Hart observed that “successful leadership in times of collective stress turns leaders into statesmen.” Our nation is desperate for a unifying voice from the oval office, delivering a unifying message that Americans of goodwill need and might find reassuring. Expectations are not very high.