A State of Enduring Division in the US
Nov 1, 2018
By Jacob L. Shapiro
“The Hate Poisoning America.” “Trump’s America is Not a Safe Place for Jews.” “Is the Country More Divided than Ever?” “A Sickness in the Soul.” “The Escalating Crisis of Hate-Fuelled Violence in the Trump Era.” “Trump and the End of American Ideals.” “We’re Not Supposed to Hate Our Fellow Americans This Much.” And my personal favorite: “Is the United States on the Verge of Civil War?” These are just a smattering of headlines in the past month from major American media outlets, including The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Fox News and The Atlantic. They come from authors self-described as conservative and liberal, Republicans and Democrats. The only thing Americans seem to agree on today is that something is rotten in the state of their Union. Everything goes off the rails as soon as Americans start discussing what it is and how to fix it – but that something is horribly wrong no one denies.
As a case in point, last Saturday an armed man attacked a synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, during a Sabbath service. By the time police neutralized him, the man had killed 11 congregants and wounded six more. The attack, described by the Anti-Defamation League as the “deadliest on the Jewish community in the history of the United States,” caused many in the U.S. to reflect on the fundamental freedoms on which the country prides itself. In the days since, the U.S. government and leaders across the political spectrum have loudly condemned it, while in the same breath blaming their political opponents for the climate of violence and radicalism that gave rise to such a grisly attack. The arguments on both sides of the aisle have reached the point of mutual unintelligibility, exacerbated by a fractured media environment in which people follow only those sources that best confirm their preconceived views.
Across the media, the incident in Pennsylvania and the subsequent political debate in the U.S. became the latest evidence of the extraordinary times in which we seem to be living. This Deep Dive takes a look at the data and the arc of American history to determine just how exceptional they are.
Hate by the Numbers
The attack in Pittsburgh raises an obvious question: Have crimes targeting particular religions, ethnicities or races in the United States become more frequent since President Donald Trump’s election? Since 1992, the FBI has tracked hate crimes incidents, offenses “against a person or property motivated in whole or in part by an offender’s bias against a race, religion, disability, sexual orientation, ethnicity, gender, or gender identity.” The most recent data available is for the year 2016, and it suggests that the number of hate-related criminal incidents in the United States has indeed increased – by 12 percent since 2014. According to the FBI, the largest uptick in violence since 2014 was registered against people of mixed race (reported incidents doubled), followed by Latino or Hispanic people (a 15 percent increase) and gay men (a 13 percent rise). Reported incidents against blacks, Jews and transgender people, on the other hand, actually decreased marginally over the same time period. In addition, though reporting of hate crime incidents in the U.S. has increased since 2014, it is down significantly since 1996, which, besides 2001, is the most violent year on record according to FBI data, with 44 percent more hate crimes reported than in 2016. (A spike in anti-Muslim incidents after the 9/11 attacks helped drive up the numbers for 2001.)
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On the surface, the numbers seem comforting. Whether they should be is less than clear. The data on which the FBI bases its hate crime statistics come from participating agencies throughout the United States – 15,254 agencies in 2016, representing 89 percent of the U.S. population. That means the data doesn’t account for 11 percent of the population – a not-insignificant chunk. Furthermore, the reporting agencies are not evenly or proportionally distributed among states; in 2016, Mississippi had a population of just under 3 million people and 26 reporting agencies (of which only four submitted incident reports to the FBI) – six fewer participating agencies than in Alaska, whose population was shy of 750,000. These discrepancies somewhat undermine the validity of any broad conclusions made from the FBI data. On top of that, a California State University study found the FBI’s data incomplete because of underreporting, not only by participating agencies but also by hate crime victims themselves. According to a report from the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics, more than half of hate crimes from 2011 to 2015 went unreported. (The report also found that an average of 250,000 hate crime victimizations – that is, crimes in which victims perceived bias against a particular group as the perpetrators’ motive – occurred among U.S. residents between each year from 2004 to 2015, nearly 50 times more than the number of hate crimes the FBI reported in 2015.)
The Bureau of Justice Statistics report suggests that the FBI data grossly understates the number of hate crimes happening each year in the United States. But even by the BJS figures, hate crimes still represent only 3.7 percent of all violent crime in the United States. The BJS, moreover, found no statistically significant change in the annual rate of violent hate crimes between 2004 and 2015. And though the bureau has not yet released data for 2016 and 2017, the California State University study forecast only a modest increase in hate crimes for last year. (The FBI will release its data for 2017 next month.) It also predicted a “significant national decrease” for 2018, despite warning that the U.S. political cycle could aggravate ethnic and racial tensions in the second half of the year – a forecast that appears prescient in hindsight.
It should also be noted that these figures reflect only violent crimes. The Anti-Defamation League tracks anti-Semitic incidents in the U.S. more broadly, accounting for assaults, vandalism and verbal harassment. Its 2017 survey showed that anti-Semitic incidents in the U.S. rose by 57 percent year-on-year, with most of the increase coming from occurrences at K-12 schools and on college campuses. Nevertheless, the Anti-Defamation League’s own tracking system showed that physical assaults actually decreased by 47 percent.
A U.S. History of Violence
Regardless of which numbers one believes, statistics offer an imperfect picture of the situation. The issue isn’t so much that hate crime, or violent crime in general, is on the rise. (On the contrary, the FBI estimates that the rate of violent crime fell between 2016 and 2017 by nearly 1 percent.) It’s the public perception of these crimes. The emotional trauma of the attack on the Tree of Life synagogue, combined with the depth of the domestic political divide in the United States, has inflated its significance. The same is true when an undocumented immigrant commits a violent crime: Even though studies by organizations such as the Cato Institute have shown that undocumented immigrants are less likely to commit crimes than native-born Americans, when someone who came to the U.S. illegally commits a crime, like the recent murder of a young woman in Iowa, the incident confirms political biases.
The truth is that like any country, the U.S. monopolizes its fair share of violence. Indeed, violence is as much a part of the marrow of the United States as the Constitution is. Native Americans were slaughtered and removed from their ancestral lands to make way for white settlers and Manifest Destiny. The U.S. practiced slavery for the first 89 years of its existence and killed untold millions of enslaved people in the process, before freeing some 4 million slaves at the end of the Civil War. The Tuskegee Institute estimates that between 1882 and 1968, 4,743 people died in lynchings in the United States – 73 percent of them in the South. Blacks were the primary targets of these crimes, though other minorities were not spared – the lynching of a Jewish factory superintendent named Leo Frank in Georgia in 1915 is as horrific a crime against Jews as any in U.S. history, last weekend included. The Ku Klux Klan is not a Southern outlier but a thoroughly American institution: In 1924, one in seven adults in Suffolk County, New York, and in Denver, Colorado, were Klan members. The Southern Poverty Law Center’s map of hate groups currently active in the U.S. is positively frightening. And during World War II, the United States summarily interned more than 100,000 Japanese-American civilians, as a result of what Congress later called “racial prejudice, war hysteria, and a failure of political leadership.”
With that history in mind, it’s harder to make the case that violence – specifically violence against minorities – has increased significantly since Trump’s election. There’s a much stronger basis for the case that this kind of violence is simply part of the fabric of American life. What has grown is not the rate of these crimes but rather people’s awareness of them, along with social and class divides among the U.S. population. The tragedy last weekend, the proliferation of school shootings, the 19 percent rise in reported rapes in the U.S. since 2013 – being oblivious to the context of these crimes does not make the mourning for their victims more sincere. Union and Confederate armies are not preparing for a war that will eventually kill more than 600,000 Americans. Presidents, presidential candidates and civil rights leaders are not being shot down in the streets. The National Guard is not killing students at U.S. universities, and the United States does not have 500,000 American soldiers deployed in a land war in Asia.
That’s not to say that the U.S. isn’t polarized – it is. It’s also not to say that disturbing acts of violence aren’t happening at the hands of both the U.S. government and madmen like the synagogue shooter – they are. It is merely to remind us that what’s happening in the U.S. is not only far from unprecedented but also hardly a sign that America is terminally ill. If it is, then the U.S. has been suffering from the same disease since 1776, not 2016. The discovery of a cure, if one exists, depends in part on an accurate diagnosis.
An American Always Pays His Debts … or Does He?
To abuse the metaphor, let’s take a look at the patient’s history. The U.S. is the heir to the British Empire. And in its recent history, it seems to be following in its predecessor’s footsteps.
From 1756 to 1763, the Kingdom of Great Britain led a coalition that won the Seven Years’ War. (The conflict started in earnest for Great Britain two years earlier, in what’s known as the French and Indian War.) It was a textbook victory. Relying on the superiority of its navy at sea and on the prowess of its heavily subsidized Prussian allies on land, Britain managed to crush its main rival, France. By the war’s end, its dominance over the world was a fait accompli. Great Britain acquired all French territories in North America east of the Mississippi River in the 1763 Treaty of Paris, along with Spanish Florida, making it the pre-eminent power on the continent. It also eliminated French power in India, paving the way for its unrivaled power in that country. The war had been immensely costly – Great Britain’s public debt almost doubled, from 75.6 million pounds to 133 million pounds, and its ratio of debt to gross domestic product peaked at 157 percent in 1763. But in the end, it got what it paid for: the British Empire. London looked poised to rule the world for generations to come.
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What happened next made the cost of the Seven Years’ War look like a trifle. British public debt ballooned from 127 million pounds to 243 million pounds between 1775 and 1784. Great Britain spent some 236 million pounds on a failed campaign to quell a rebellion in the American colonies. (Chief among the revolutionaries’ complaints was a tax hike Britain had levied to help pay its debts.) By 1803, France had so regained its strength that Great Britain felt compelled to go to war once more. It took 12 bloody years and 1.7 billion pounds, but the kingdom defeated Napoleon and restored its position of global dominance for another century. Britain’s debt stood at 226 percent of GDP in 1815 and topped out six years later at 260 percent – a larger proportion than the United Kingdom had at any point during or after World War II.
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A couple hundred years later, the United States is taking up similar habits. Washington reacted to the end of a war its main enemy lost with profligate spending and erratic foreign policy. In 1990, as the Cold War drew to a close, U.S. debt was $3.2 trillion. On the eve of the 2008 financial crisis, it had hit $9 trillion, and as of this September, it’s at $21.5 trillion, almost seven times what it was just 28 years ago. Some $8 trillion of that debt has accumulated under Republican and Democratic administrations during a period of economic growth and relatively small military deployments abroad. It doesn’t look like the U.S. is going to tighten its belt anytime soon, either; the Congressional Budget Office predicts that the U.S. budget deficit, currently at $779 billion – up 17 percent since last year – will surpass $1 trillion by 2020. The U.S. debt-to-GDP ratio is now 104 percent – the same proportion Great Britain had in 1757, the year after the Seven Years’ War began.
But where Great Britain’s money went to securing its empire, the U.S. surge in spending has gone to a combination of tax cuts and the military. In August, Congress passed a $686 billion defense budget for the coming year. Among the authorizations are a 15,000-troop increase, 77 new F-35 fighter jets, a new Ford-class aircraft carrier, three littoral combat ships, six polar icebreakers and a 2.6 percent pay raise across the military. The increased defense spending has played a decisive role in bumping the U.S. GDP growth rate to 3 percent, according to the Commerce Department, and it reflects Washington’s changing strategic priorities. In the 17 years the U.S. has been engaged in insurgency warfare, China and Russia have emerged as potential rivals on the global stage, while Iran and North Korea pose threats to stability in their respective regions. The United States is overextended and underprepared to take on any of these countries in a conventional military operation without sacrificing its ability to project power around the world. To rise to that challenge, it will need to enhance its capabilities.
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The trouble is that a $686 billion defense budget is just the tip of the iceberg if Washington’s goal is to keep its military edge over Russia and China and still be able to field enough forces for missions abroad. The Congressional Budget Office estimates that over the next 30 years, the U.S. will spend $400 billion to modernize its nuclear weapons arsenal alone – $1.2 trillion in today’s dollars, according to War on the Rocks. The Obama administration made the original plans, but the Trump administration’s Nuclear Posture Review has augmented them, proposing new warheads and missiles that could add tens of billions of dollars to the final price tag. Maintaining nuclear superiority over its foes will be costly for the U.S., particularly if no successor agreement emerges to replace the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty. (At the same time, the mercurial Trump has called for 5 percent spending cuts in all federal departments by 2020, refusing to clarify whether the directive applies to the Pentagon, too.) And unlike Great Britain, which incurred the bulk of its debts during wartime, the United States is using up its credit in times of peace and plenty – a decision that could make borrowing harder in the event of an economic crisis or large-scale military confrontation.
Follow the Money
Of course, the threat of being eclipsed by a rival military power is still a distant one for the U.S. The country devotes more money to its military than the next 10 biggest defense spenders combined. Its most credible future rival – China – would have to keep up its current rate of military development for at least another decade before it could hope to challenge the U.S. in the South China Sea, let alone at the myriad maritime chokepoints it depends on for trade. Of far greater consequence for U.S. political stability, on both the domestic and international fronts, are a financial crisis and the inflexibility that comes with carrying such a hefty debt and deficit.
And those risks don’t stop at the federal level. American consumers have gone on a spending spree of their own. As of the second quarter of this year, U.S. household debt had reached $13.29 trillion – 5 percent higher than it was in the second quarter of 2008. Student loan debt, having more than doubled in that time, stands now at $1.41 trillion. Credit card, auto and housing debt have climbed as well, to say nothing of the stratospheric rise of the U.S. stock market, where the Dow Jones sits at almost three times its value in 2009 even after the recent fluctuations. Anyone looking for a potential bubble in the U.S. economy could reasonably point to any of these asset classes as the tinder that might set off the next major financial crisis. Most American consumers depend on credit to finance the kind of lifestyle they want, and only 52 percent of them have reaped the gains of the stock market’s rally, according to a recent Gallup poll. The U.S. has not recovered from the 2008 financial crisis. It has simply kicked the can down the road.
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Behind this binge on loans and credit is a staggering level of income and wealth inequality in the United States. The top 10 percent of pretax income earners make half of all pretax income in the country – a greater share than at any previous moment in recorded U.S. history, including the height of the Great Depression. Income growth has ground to a standstill: From 1978 to 2015, in fact, real cumulative income for the bottom 50 percent of U.S. workers declined by 1 percent. The Pew Research Center finds that, accounting for inflation, wages today have the same purchasing power they had 40 years ago. In the U.S., the lower 60 percent of households by income possess just 2.4 percent of wealth – the lowest figure among any of the 28 countries that report wealth distribution data to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development. The wealthy, meanwhile, have turned to the stock market as one of the few opportunities left for those with capital to spend to achieve high yields on their investments. That middle-class earners have more of their wealth tied up in real estate than in stocks – which have recovered better and faster since 2008 than housing prices have – is also driving inequality.
The result, according to Pew, is that only upper-income families have recouped the wealth they lost during the financial crisis. While median wealth for lower-income families fell by 40 percent from 2007 to 2016 – and by 33 percent for middle-income families – it grew by 10 percent for upper-income households. And though U.S. unemployment is currently as low as it has been in almost 20 years, real wage growth has been flat. If the U.S. economy has recovered from the 2008 recession, the majority of the country’s citizens have not. The tales of recovery ring hollow for those hardest hit, and yet all around them is economic euphoria and celebrations of surging stock market prices, low unemployment and more tax cuts to come. When another recession eventually strikes the U.S., inequality will have reached new heights after more than a decade of frustration for those who have not been able to fully participate in what on paper looks like a healthy and humming American economy. If the wealth gap is anything to go on, it’s small wonder the U.S. public is divided.
Know-Nothings of the 21st Century
There’s one more symptom of the current American condition that warrants attention here: the increased animosity in the United States toward immigrants, particularly (though not exclusively) asylum seekers and people in the country illegally. The Mexican immigrant population in the United States surged during the last quarter of the 20th century from 2.2 million in 1980 to 9.2 million in 2000, topping out at 12.8 million in 2013. Although it has since declined – to 11.3 million in 2017 – immigration nonetheless was a key issue in the last presidential election. Trump made illegal immigration a focus of his campaign for the presidency, touting a plan to build a wall between the U.S. and Mexico – and to make Mexico pay for it.
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Periods of hostility toward immigrants are not uncommon in U.S. history. In 1798, a Federalist U.S. government passed the Alien and Sedition Acts, afraid that its partisan rivals, the Democratic Republicans, might ally with France against it. The better-known aspects of these laws are their impingements on freedom of the press – but part of their purpose was to make it harder for immigrants to come to the United States and attain U.S. citizenship. Some 80 years later, Chester A. Arthur’s administration signed the aptly named Chinese Exclusion Act, prohibiting Chinese laborers from coming to the United States because Americans who had moved west were worried about competition for jobs.
But there is another chapter of U.S. history that more closely resembles the present, at least where U.S. immigration and its staunchest opponents are concerned: the mid-19th century. That era brought the rise of the Native American Party, or as it is better known to history, the “Know-Nothing Movement.” The Know-Nothings were a group of nativists who feared Catholic immigrants, especially from Ireland and Germany, as a faction they felt would be more loyal to the pope than to the president. The movement emerged as a political force in the 1850s, on the eve of the Civil War, and its rise reflected not so much popular resistance to immigration as a collapse of the traditional political groupings of the time.
The Whig Party, which up until then was one of two major parties in the U.S. political system, was crumbling. Not only had it lost two of its leaders – Henry Clay and Daniel Webster, who died in 1852 – but it was also divided on the issue of slavery. With its origins in opposing what it saw as the authoritarian tendencies of Andrew Jackson, the Whig Party attracted all manner of people, including federalists who advocated a strong legislative check on the presidency and states’ rights advocates who did not recognize strong central government authority, whether that of Congress or of the executive branch. The 1854 Kansas-Nebraska Act – which enabled its namesake territories to decide for themselves whether they would allow slavery, repealing the 1820 Missouri Compromise – split the party for good. Anti-slavery Whigs, such as Abraham Lincoln, joined the Republican Party. The rest of the Whigs diverged, some joining the Democratic Party and others flocking to the new Know-Nothing Movement. In the 1856 presidential election, the Know-Nothing candidate received 21.5 percent of the popular vote. By 1860, however, the Know-Nothings had been subsumed into an umbrella party called the Constitutional Union that garnered 12.6 percent of the vote. They never played a large role in U.S. electoral politics again.
The Know-Nothings were a narrow, almost single-issue party. As the country became increasingly polarized, eventually to the point of war, the two-party system fell apart. The 1860 presidential election pitted four candidates against one other – Lincoln won with just 40 percent of the popular vote, carrying only 18 of 44 states. The Know-Nothings lashed out at a representative democracy they felt no longer represented their views. That kind of disillusionment is the currency on which would-be demagogues thrive.
Like that of the Whig and Democratic parties in the 1850s, today’s two-party system is straining under the changing priorities of its constituencies. The previous electoral bases of the Republican and Democratic parties have become almost unrecognizable. For nearly 40 years, Republicans were the party of fiscal conservativism, free trade, morally based foreign policy and Christian values. Democrats were the party of workers and unions, protectionism, government spending and a more liberal internationalist foreign policy for even longer, going back to the days of FDR. These labels no longer mean anything. The Democratic presidential candidate in 2016, Hillary Clinton, was a typical Democrat on social issues, but on economic and foreign policy matters, she was practically a Republican. The man who almost beat her for the Democratic nomination, Bernie Sanders, is an independent, not a Democrat. Trump, likewise, is a departure from Republican politics as we knew them: He is not a fiscal conservative and has moved the U.S. toward protectionist policies not seen since the Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act.
Much as it did during the watershed 1850s, the immigration issue has seemingly come to a head in contemporary U.S. politics. Trump famously referred to Mexican immigrants as drug dealers, criminals and rapists during his presidential campaign. But in case that statement didn’t make it clear enough, the real issue here is not illegal immigration. Illegal immigration has been a major political talking point in the United States for almost 30 years, since the influx of Mexican immigrants to the U.S. began in the 1980s. Multiple administrations and Congressional line-ups have failed to pass meaningful immigration reform, leaving opponents of illegal immigration feeling understandably betrayed by their government. Trump capitalized on this disillusionment and disenfranchisement and, like any effective demagogue, appealed to people’s fears and prejudices to secure their support. To many of his supporters, it doesn’t matter that former President Barack Obama holds the current record for immigrant deportations, having ejected more than 2 million people from the U.S. during his eight years in office. What matters is that Trump really understands the threat of Mexican rapists and would-be Muslim terrorists trying to infiltrate the United States, and only he has the guts to do what must be done to stop them.
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To be clear, not all opponents of illegal immigration think this way. Indeed, the majority don’t. Many Americans who oppose illegal immigration have done so for years as a matter of legal or economic principle. Still, it is undeniable that a certain segment of the U.S. population views not just illegal immigrants but all foreigners with the same kind of fearful disdain that the Know-Nothings felt for Irish and German immigrants.
A guest last week on Lou Dobbs’ show on Fox News claimed that a caravan of Central American migrants seeking asylum in the U.S. had financial backing from leftist mobs and connections to the “[George] Soros-occupied State Department” – information he’d gleaned from the “highest levels of the Guatemalan government.” The conspiracy theory, concerning a top department of the U.S government (a department led by a hand-picked Trump loyalist, no less) and laced with the anti-Semitic insinuation that a billionaire Jew is single-handedly working to sabotage U.S. national security, speaks for itself. Trump has suspended aid to Central American countries to show how tough he is – undermining U.S. influence in a region in which China is trying to curry favor. He deployed 5,000 U.S. troops to the Mexican border to drive the point home. (Mexico, not exactly enthused about the caravan itself, has also deployed its navy to secure its southern border.) But Trump is not the cause of this underlying dynamic. Rather, he is simply one of its more conspicuous symptoms.
The Obama administration was tough on immigration. During its tenure, private companies raked in millions of dollars in contracts with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement to house detained immigrants and asylum seekers when federal facilities ran out of space for them. In 2014, the Obama administration expanded a system for detaining families after a large influx of Central American immigrants, many of them unaccompanied children, tried to enter the United States illegally that year. In that sense, the “zero-tolerance” policy the Trump administration implemented in April, resulting in harrowing scenes of children being separated from their parents at the border, was not terribly different from Obama-era policies, right down to the euphemisms used to describe the detention centers. What was “family-friendly” in the parlance of the Obama administration became “like summer camp” under Trump.
The difference is that where the Obama administration seemed to feel a degree of guilt over its policies and tried to stem the negative press they generated, Trump has fully embraced the tough-guy image. While members of his party scrambled to reunite children with their parents and stop the practice of family separation for fear of embarrassment or negative fallout, Trump was telling anyone who would listen that Mexico was sending rapists and now child smugglers to the border and that he was “100 percent right” the whole time. This kind of rhetoric is attractive to voters who feel they have no party or leader who understands their views. The Know-Nothings won 21.5 percent of the vote in a presidential election doing the same thing, and though it’s impossible to know what segment of Trump’s base is of a like mind, the Know-Nothings are as good a benchmark as any.
Vice Pays Its Tribute to Virtue
Americans believe in the myth of American exceptionalism. The United States, in the words of John Winthrop, is to be “a city upon a hill” – with the eyes of the world watching it. Indeed, it is a virtue of the United States that its people believe its government should be held to a higher standard of justice, a standard defined not by race, creed or sexual orientation but by the U.S. Constitution. That document, and the fervent American belief in it, is what allows the United States to sometimes correct its flaws and to deal with diversity in a way that can be both progressive and, by its own measure, just. It is also what allows me to write such an honest assessment of the U.S. without fear of being thrown in jail and hung upside down by my ankles – a pleasure I might look forward to on publication in a country like China or Russia, where, to quote Lincoln, “despotism can be taken pure without the base alloy of hypocrisy.”
Hypocrisy, as Francois de la Rochefoucauld said, is the tribute vice pays to virtue. And the pretense of virtue is often better than no virtue at all, even if it means one must work harder to unearth the vice. There is hypocrisy in the outcry over the polarization and violence afflicting U.S. society, as if violence in America is something new, and as if the current levels are comparable to those during previous chapters of American history. The U.S. is polarized, true – but not nearly so much as it has been at other, more dire moments in its history. The country’s current divisions are not primarily about race, religion, gender or any other hot-button cultural issue. These rifts have always been present in the U.S., and the country will never be rid of its original sins. (There’s also a case to be made that they have never been less present than they are today.) Pretending a single man is responsible for these demons is not only intellectually lazy, it is simply incorrect.
The deeper malaise in U.S. society stems from class divisions. Economic policies have exacerbated wealth inequalities and, in turn, created political disillusionment that has transformed traditional U.S. political parties beyond recognition into forces incapable of governing for the good of the nation and content to govern for the affirmation of the mob. The United States endured similar periods of polarization and social crisis during Reconstruction and before the Great Depression and became stronger for them. The main difference now is that the country has never dealt with such a large problem while also carrying such high levels of debt and so much international responsibility.
If there is one issue today that calls to mind the darker chapters of American history, it is not a universally condemned lone-wolf attack against a synagogue. It is the United States’ general attitude toward illegal immigration, toward foreigners in general, toward asylum seekers who risk their lives to come to the country precisely because they believe the U.S. is the city on a hill that it claims to be. This chauvinism has reared its head occasionally in American history, usually at times of economic and political upheaval. Its reanimation is just the latest sign that political reorganization at the top is long overdue. In the meantime, if history is any indication, the political polarization in the U.S. will get worse before it gets any better, and until the country has addressed its underlying economic problems, demagogues and political parties on all sides will continue to look for the issues that most inflame the passions to distract from the system’s failings.
Great Britain was an undisputed global superpower in the last quarter of the 18th century and almost squandered its position through a series of expensive missteps. Though the U.S. eschews the trappings of empire, its global power over its rivals is no less significant than Britain’s was a couple hundred years ago. What’s more, its missteps share striking similarities with those of the British at the end of the 18th century. The most likely scenario is that, like the British Empire before it, the United States muddles through and comes out more powerful than before for a long stretch until it enters a secular decline – all the while believing it is truly exceptional, right up to the very end.
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