May 30, 2020

So, Just How United Is the United States of America?

by Hal Gershowitz

Comments Below

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.

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7 responses to “So, Just How United Is the United States of America?”

  1. qua says:

    There is little doubt that we as a nation are united and the reasons are varied and of course complex.
    The spark to undermine and pinpoint of course was the brutal
    killing of Mr. Floyd.
    I feel the reason is more fundamental and it begins with our
    change in cultural whether it be the liberalism that pervades
    in schools,churches,families and acceptance of values not measured in civilized society. We can begin with music and the appreciation of same. In schools the respect for teachers
    and authority. We have undermined society in general.
    We have dressed sloppy and allowed “Fashion” to be fashionable with torn jeans instead of clean and appropriate
    modest clothing. The list of failures of this society is endless.
    Family values are “Old Fashioned” and children taught and
    expected to obey their elders and respectful of authority whether it be law enforcement ,civil authority and even parental authority. We have forgotten to teach the young
    our heritage both good and bad, added to this incendiary setting we have relied upon black leadership itself in major
    cities to destroy themselves through their own corruption and
    their willingness to blame the “White Majority” for their troubles……….not one iota of self blame in the process.

    The “New Press” and the “New Motion pictures” and the “New” thinking have resulted in chaos and destruction. The
    spark of the killing is not the cause of the riots , the “New” society devoid of reason,respect and authority with weak ,spineless leaders and of course lack of true States people in

  2. Betty Wolf says:

    It is difficult to have a “unifying voice” or the opportunity for the emergence of a third party with an army of opposition media playing tug of war.

    It is also difficult for any president to confront relentless media assault with their convenient omission of facts and truth bending, regardless of a given president’s delivery styles.

    In this heavily biased press environment, Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnaney, has put a bright light on untruths that fuel sensationalism and marketing to capture Twitter hits and increased/retained readership and viewership. The press has become devoid of objectivity whether it is CNN or Fox.

    This period of “extreme polarization”, amplified by all media channels, is tragically fanning the racism scourge and blame game. America is hemorrhaging as a result.

    There is hunger for truth and transparency from the FBI, CIA and DOJ. Their motives are viewed as highly suspicious and in line with the “Deep State”, that includes career politicians from both sides. The media exacerbates confusion and does little for unification. While Trump remains the so called “junkyard dog”, his supporters accept his flaws because there is strong belief that he has the mettle to expose and combat numerous mounting, subversive forces that have seeped into America, such as Antifa, under previous administrations.

    A recent Wall Street Journal article highlights:

    The ‘Liberal Leaning’ Media Has Passed Its Tipping Point A return to balance would be commercially unviable. The best solution may be an honest embrace of bias.

    Thank you, Hal. Be well.

  3. James Fisher says:

    Hal, thanks for a thoughtful, incisive look at the state of our union today. I fully agree, as you state, that…”The voices of dissent are, today, often expressed as a loathing of the other rather than mere expressions of differences of opinion.”

    I can only try to get my intellectual arms around this problem by dividing it into two parts; ideological divisions and racial divisions.

    Ideologically, the schism between conservative and liberal points of view is huge and seemingly insurmountable. Whether between friends, family members or political candidates – both sides claim their position is the right one. I for one blame our agenda-driven, heavily biased, mainstream media for much of this division.

    Could any US president unify these two opposing political points of view? One would think that Donald Trump – never really a Republican ideologue – and having actually supported democrats in the past, would have a decent chance at doing this – but he certainly hasn’t succeeded so far.

    Racially, however, Trump has taken more positive concrete steps on behalf of African Americans than any other recent president; record low unemployment, record number actually employed, significant criminal justice reform with the First Step Act, strong financial support for HBCU’s, and the strengthening of charter schools – a tangible benefit to African Americans.

    Was our first Black president a racially unifying force? In a word, No. I personally remember numerous incidents of racial divisiveness created by Obama during his eight years in office. But don’t take my word for it, in 2009, a New York Times/CBS News poll found that two-thirds of Americans regarded race relations as generally good. However, upon Obama’s leaving office, 69% of Americans assessed race relations to be mostly bad.

    Going forward, we must pray that our democratic institutions can stay strong and allow, as you say, “ Those differences to nourish creativity and advance progress.“ On that note, the progress represented by yesterday’s successful private launching of the first manned SpaceX rocket from America should make us all very proud. Such a terrible, graphic juxtaposition when contrasted with the looting taking place at that very moment in our city streets.

  4. Stephen Prover says:

    HAL, thanks once again for an insightful eloquent analysis of the “state of the union’ as it truly exists today..
    Sadly, the first three comments from your readers, while paying lip service to your wonderful essay, incredibly again illustrate their dogged blind refusal to understand differences in opinion and deep loathing they hold for members of the press and community with whom they disagree….

  5. Stuart Goldfine says:

    QUA and James Fisher (above) are correct, but liberals don’t want to listen. They make false promises to Hispanics and blacks, pandering for their votes.
    If all those illegal aliens coming across the Mexican border wanted to register as Republicans, then Pelosi, Schumer, Schiff, Waters, and Newsom would be there building the wall tomorrow. The Democrats promise everything for free and no one asks, “Who will pay for all these free goods, including college ?”
    We need trade schools in the poor areas to train computer technicians, auto mechanics, electricians, carpenters, certified nurse and home health aides, and other trades.

  6. Mike Swirnoff says:

    I am stunned by the replies you were received to your excellent analysis of what is going on in the United States. The one exception is the reply from STEVE PROVER. Those other replies simply reinforce your analysis.

  7. Eddie Whitehead says:

    Hal, you offer an interesting essay on the state of our country. I have to say that the comments are disappointing but not unexpected. Most every conflict this country experiences is immediately reduced to left vs right, red vs blue and/or Black vs white. What’s missing in those arguments is man’s inhumanity to man. The brutal killing of young Black men and women, in some circles, is treated the same as an exterminator killing a bug. At least one commenter seems to suggest that such an act should result in some type of racial self-reflection. The failure to truly discern the profound horror and damage to society encapsulated in the present day act of a police officer placing his knee on the neck of a handcuffed, nonviolent offender, until life slowly drains from his body, leaves this country well short of bridging the racial divide. In your future essays, I’ll have to remind myself to avoid reading the comments that follow.

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