A house divided, perhaps fatally: What's the pathway to a reunited America?

The great issue of 2024 is the survival of the United States and the democratic way of life. Are we up to it?

By Gregory D. Foster

Contributing Writer

Published June 30, 2024 6:01AM (EDT)

Supporters of former U.S. President Donald Trump hold signs as they demonstrate outside of the E. Barrett Prettyman U.S. Courthouse on August 03, 2023 in Washington, DC. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)
Supporters of former U.S. President Donald Trump hold signs as they demonstrate outside of the E. Barrett Prettyman U.S. Courthouse on August 03, 2023 in Washington, DC. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

They're rioting in Africa. They're starving in Spain.
There's hurricanes in Florida and Texas needs rain.
The whole world is festering with unhappy souls.
The French hate the Germans. The Germans hate the Poles.
Italians hate Yugoslavs. South Africans hate the Dutch.
And I don't like anybody very much!

Unless you are so disturbingly young as to be irredeemably challenged culturally, perhaps you “remember” the foregoing words from the Kingston Trio’s 1959 hit song, “The Merry Minuet”? How quaint it is that these words so exquisitely capture the moment now before us in the United States, where nobody likes anybody very much.

This state of affairs is mirrored elsewhere abroad, of course, but our principal concern is with the good ol’ US of A, where division, fragmentation and polarization are unquestionably the order of the day. That isn’t hard to understand, nor is it entirely unexpected, in a society that is diverse by nature, pluralistic by design, rights-obsessed by choice and individualistic by habit. The idea of a great melting pot that assimilates and integrates the tired, poor, huddled, wretched masses Emma Lazarus described is a quaint artifact of a bygone past. Or is it? What about that globalization thing we say has suffocatingly overcome us all?

Why is this even important? Why, if at all, should it concern us? Because one’s ability to act strategically, at home or abroad, is in large measure about the effective exercise of power to get what you want, to get your way (even when you don’t know what you want), to bend others to your will. Power is a function of both the wherewithal — the “stuff” — at one’s disposal and the will to use such wherewithal. Will — collective willingness — is a reflection of national unity, and national unity is a function of social cohesion, the glue of trust that turns the differentiated many into the unified One: E pluribus unuma more perfect union.

Take any demographic feature you can think of: race, ethnicity, gender, age, sexual orientation, religion, socioeconomic class, geographic residence or origin, intelligence or level of educational attainment. Take any type or level of experience: veteran-nonveteran, private sector-public sector, parochial-sophisticated, provincial-cosmopolitan. Take any ideological orientation or political preference: liberal-conservative, Democrat-Republican, nativist-globalist, pacifist-militarist. All are potential sources of division, dissensus and disunity – far more powerful, experience has shown, than the things that can bring us together and unify us in common cause in the absence of a crisis or catastrophe.

Forget George W. Bush's "Axis of Evil." In the onetime words of Walt Kelly’s Pogo, “We have met the enemy, and he is us.”

Recall the George W. Bush administration invoking the term "Axis of Evil" to strike fear and loathing in the hearts of the American electorate in order to galvanize public support for the so-called global war on terrorism. The weakness of that branding device was the very word evil, for it connotes intentionality, thereby making it solely the proprietary domain of states acting in hostile opposition to one another. Today, we face what might better be called an “Axis of Harm,” to accentuate the real current threats to our physical, mental and emotional well-being, which  are essentially intentionless phenomena: pandemics, climate disasters and, most importantly, disintegrative forces from within, born of self-absorbed, self-serving anger and hostility, and producing alienation, ostracization and often violence. It is the last of these that actually is the foremost threat facing this country today. In the onetime words of Walt Kelly’s Pogo, “We have met the enemy, and he is us.”

In 1858, then-newly anointed Illinois Republican Senate candidate Abraham Lincoln famously said: “A house divided against itself cannot stand.” If you can’t agree, he was suggesting, if you can’t get along, if you can’t even tolerate one another internally, you’re headed for self-destruction and destined for oblivion, no matter how threatening or challenging outside forces may be. It is a psychosocial suicide pact. Curiously, though, Lincoln then went on to say: “I do not expect the Union to be dissolved — I do not expect the house to fall — but I do expect it will cease to be divided.” The issue then at hand was slavery — whether to preserve it or eliminate it. There were no two ways about it, there was no middle ground, no room for compromise. The issue at hand today is the very survival of the United States and its idealized democratic way of life: the "shining city on a hill," the "beacon of light," the indispensable nation. This time, the house could fall, unless we who inhabit it can figure out how to reinforce its beams and strengthen its foundation. As during the original Civil War, this is a zero-sum, win-lose situation. No ties or forfeitures allowed.

Two problems confront us today in dealing with this ominous threat from within. First, the American public doesn’t recognize such internal disintegrative forces as a serious, priority threat, especially since opinion pollsters typically are wedded to a more abbreviated, quotidian list of issues for public consideration. In a revealing but unusual 2022 poll by FiveThirtyEight and Ipsos, respondents ranked political extremism or polarization as one of the most important issues (third on a list of 20) facing the country, trailing only “inflation or increasing costs” and “crime or gun violence.” As the pollsters themselves noted at the time, “Americans typically have not ranked polarization or extremism as a top concern. Historically, concerns around the economy or fear of military conflict have loomed the largest in American minds.” If asked in open-ended fashion, with no specific enumeration of possibilities, to identify the most serious threats or most critical issues facing the country, survey respondents would almost certainly not mention polarization and extremism.

The disintegrationists are true believers, driven by grievance, disaffection, alienation, dispossession, powerlessness and persecution. What they believe is what they think they “know,” and anyone not similarly possessed of their knowledge is the Other, the “out-group” or enemy tribe.

Second, our political leaders don’t have a clue how to counter such forces. In fact, a sizable number of our political leaders are themselves among what I'll call the “disintegrationists,” so who could expect them to come up with measures that would contribute to their own irrelevance or defeat? No obvious solution presents itself, and in fact there may be no solution at all, leaving us to allow the situation to somehow run its own natural, evolutionary course over time. That represents a highly risky, irresponsible choice, a complete abdication of responsibility by those in power.

Absent any readily available solution, perhaps we have no immediate recourse other than to heighten our understanding of the disintegrative forces that demand both our attention and our continued attempts at prevention or amelioration. For starters, let’s acknowledge that these disintegrative forces are indeed human, even though they can’t be said to demonstrate the same degree of conscious intentionality we have come to expect from foreign adversaries with governing bodies. Three things of particular note seem to characterize the disintegrationists:

  • They are what we have come to recognize over time as true believers, driven by deeply held beliefs masquerading as facts. Though their particular beliefs may vary widely, in general they all reflect grievance, disaffection, alienation, dispossession, powerlessness and persecution. What they believe is what they think they “know,” and anyone not similarly possessed of their knowledge is the Other, the “out-group” or enemy tribe. They resonate to claims of fake news and alternative facts, and see misinformation and disinformation in support of their beliefs as perfectly normal, acceptable, justifiable and useful.
  • What they consider objective reality — like rigged elections, the militarization of the Justice Department, the “deep state,” legions of migrant murderers and rapists, political prisoners being persecuted for peacefully demonstrating on Capitol Hill — has been socially constructed, based on the convergence of independent interpretive judgments from multiple parties that have become institutionalized and thus accepted as objectively real. Constructionists call this intersubjectivity, which becomes the equivalent of objective reality. This kind of intersubjective “truth” can displace and disguise objective lies. Disintegrationists unquestioningly embrace dogmatic pronouncements, often unsupported by facts or evidence, from authority figures who mirror and reinforce their already established biases, prejudices and predispositions.
  • They are captive of groupthink, the unthinking preference for and capitulation to peer pressure, where the desire for group cohesion, solidarity and belongingness displaces the give-and-take of critical thought representative of rigorous inquiry and choice. “Where all think alike,” esteemed journalist Walter Lippmann once said, “no one thinks very much.” Groupthink, the outgrowth of an overweening desire for social acceptance above all else, is a powerful force that overrides the intellectual need for the dialectical pursuit of truth. It produces assumptive or assertive “truth” (quotation marks intended) that anyone who wants to join or remain in the in-group dare not question.

Having had this deposit-in-the-punchbowl state of affairs dumped in our laps, the question becomes, “What is to be done?” With regard to the disintegrationists themselves, there is little the rest of us can do other than to remain vigilant, allow the public authorities and related organizations to bring disturbers of the peace to justice, and vote.

The first and most important thing we need to do is to recognize the disintegrative forces that have arisen in our midst as a bona fide security threat, indeed as an existential threat to human security and national security. Only then will we take the threat as seriously as we should. Disintegrationists are who they are: unrepentant sheep capable of nothing more than following hateful demagoguery; incorrigible propagators of self-serving polarization; provincial intransigents immune to re-education, enlightenment or behavior change; political, social and cultural saboteurs bent on undermining democratic values, institutions and processes. The guiding principle in dealing with them is to counter dissidence (objectively bad) without stifling dissent (objectively good). The bottom line, quite honestly, is to write them off in terms of rehabilitation or redemption. Their minds can’t be changed. They can only be monitored, observed, exposed and held to account for their transgressions.

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What, then, about the rest of us — the civic-minded, humanistic, patriotic mainstream? The answer is simple and straightforward: We need to up our civic game significantly. The guiding principle here is to elevate ourselves from passive consent to active consensus. Even if we claim to be civic-minded in principle, in practice we must face the fact that many of us have shirked our civic duties for years, to the point of civic dysfunction. Harvard political scientist Robert Putnam alerted us almost 30 years ago us to the civic decline afflicting this country, citing such things as decreased voter turnout, attendance at public meetings, service on committees, work with political parties and growing distrust in government. While some may consider that claim to be pure conjecture, there is ample evidence that, thanks to indifference, complacency, laziness, inconvenience and substantive frustration with the political process and the quality of political leaders and candidates, we have become civically challenged or diminished in significant measure.

So there is perhaps both irony and symmetry in returning to one of Lincoln’s most lasting observations: “The ballot is stronger than the bullet.” Those are words of wisdom to impel us to action today, for votes are the bullets we need, the civic arsenal to defend ourselves from the fifth-column disintegrationists who threaten to destroy us from within. Fighting them on their nasty, hateful, divisive terms rather than our own would be self-defeating; it would be even more so to withdraw from the civic battlefield in frustration, disgust, resignation or intellectual and ethical fatigue. We can’t afford to avoid this fight.

By Gregory D. Foster

Gregory D. Foster is a former J. Carlton Ward Distinguished Professor and George C. Marshall Professor at the National Defense University. The views expressed are his own.

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