America 2016: One Nation, Two Countries
By Benny Huang November 19, 2016
This election year has been one for the history books—a jolting roller-coaster ride of scandals, vitriol and clashing world views. And it’s not over yet.
As a political junkie, I simply can’t avert my eyes. Sometimes I think that I should tune out for sanity’s sake but there’s just no off switch. This year has made me wish there were.
Do red state Americans and blue state Americans live in the same country anymore? This has gone way beyond the donkey/elephant dichotomy. It’s white vs. black, professionals vs. the working class, rural vs. urban, makers vs. takers, and the faithful vs. secular humanists.
Have we always been this divided? No. But have we ever been this divided? Yes. America has torn itself apart many times before. Between 1861 and 1865 the division was literal. Thank goodness we aren’t as divided now as we were then or else we’d be taking up arms.
It’s usually a war that splits us—first the War of 1812, then the Mexican War, the Civil War, World War I to a lesser extent, and the Vietnam War. There are still plenty people alive today who can remember that last war (er, police action) and still bear its scars, literal and figurative. It was a time when the Greatest Generation asked their sons to march off to war just as they had—and many of their sons said no. Because I was not born until seven years after the last US troops left that country I did not realize how deeply that war affected my elders’ generation until I did some research on it for a book that never got published. The pain is still there, always lurking beneath the surface. It will die with the last baby boomer and not one second sooner.
Memories of the Vietnam War were still very raw when I was a child in the 1980’s though I was blissfully unaware. President Reagan did a lot to stitch our national wounds when he delivered an address at Arlington National Cemetery on Memorial Day 1984 before the internment of a nameless Vietnam War serviceman at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. It was a moving speech that a lot of Vietnam veterans had waited a long time to hear. In short, he said thank you—something a lot of them were not accustomed to hearing.
The Reagan era was “morning in America again” to borrow a phrase from Reagan’s 1984 campaign commercial. Though not explicitly mentioned in the ad, it was a reference to the Vietnam War as much as to the “malaise” of the Carter years. Suddenly it was okay again to be a proud American. With a common identity to bind us together, the near constant strife of the 60’s and 70’s finally abated. We disagreed on issues of course but we settled our differences like people from the same country rather than people from different solar systems.
This was the period of relative tranquility that I grew up in. I thought it was normal. Silly me.
A taste of things to come arrived with the 2000 Florida recount. The national consensus of the 80’s and 90’s was starting to unravel because a significant portion of Americans truly believed that their candidate had been cheated of his rightful victory. They were wrong, of course—George W. Bush was never behind in the vote tally and the Supreme Court did not “select” him—but they really believed it. I suppose I’d be angry too if I labored under their misconception.
Shortly thereafter came 9/11 and a brief period of national unity that I’m not convinced was ever genuine. Iraq tore us apart, as did drones, wiretapping, and Guantanamo. By the time the 2004 election rolled around I was sure we Americans were at the apex of acrimonious division. It couldn’t get any worse, right? How wrong I was. In 2008 we elected a man who ran on the twin slogans of “Hope” and “Change.” Half the population—the half that was still upset about the two previous presidential elections and “Bush’s wars”—swallowed these platitudes and were shocked when we didn’t. Barack Obama divided us further with his identity politicking, his arrogance, and his heavy-handed response to dissenting voices. By 2016 the nation was a powder keg.
That’s the short history of how we got here. But how do we get out?
I have no easy answers. The gap between the utopian Left and the traditionalist Right seems unbridgeable. I was reminded of this fact recently when I read a story about a new war memorial being unveiled in the small Massachusetts town I grew up in to honor all of the town’s veterans who served in the Iraq, Afghanistan, and Persian Gulf wars. Etched on that piece of granite are the names of kids from my high school, my Boy Scout troop, my church, and my baseball team.
The accompanying photos captured traditionalist America—old guys in their VFW uniforms, middle-class moms and dads, cops and firefighters, Girl Scouts and Boy Scouts, all gathering to show their respect despite the fact that most of them probably believe that one (or both) of those wars was a mistake. It was the country I grew up in, the country I know.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the country, rioters were venting their rage through wanton destruction. Fearful that the election of Donald Trump would spell the dawn of fascism in America, they let loose their primal scream. I don’t mean to mock them as melodramatic—the overheated rhetoric (“fascist”) is theirs not mine. That’s the other America, the one I don’t know.
Can these two sides ever bury the hatchet? I doubt it. We have nothing in common. But if I could have one wish it would be an end to our national strife.
It occurs to me that people on the Left might perceive my call to reconciliation as nothing but a sore winner’s luxury. Sure, now that my guy won let’s all stand together, right? There’s just one problem: Donald Trump is not “my guy.” Bobby Jindal was my guy until he dropped out and then Ted Cruz was my guy. Mr. Trump was never for one second “my guy.” I took joy in the final election result only because Hillary Clinton lost and because a lot of working stiffs were finally heard after years of being brushed aside.
But perhaps there’s a kernel of truth to the idea that the winners always call for rapprochement simply because they’re the winners. To dissenters, “national unity” always seems like a con job and sometimes they’re right. It can be a polite but disingenuous way of telling others to get in line. It certainly felt that way to me when the triumphalist Barack Obama took office in 2009 with his “elections have consequences” rhetoric. He steamrolled us and shamed us for speaking up with what little voice we had left. We were “obstructionists” and worse, racists. Yet the opposition wanted us to come together around the president so we could get to work fixing our nation’s problems—all of which were Bush’s fault, naturally.
All I can say to those who hear a coded message in this article (“shut up”) is that I don’t mean it that way. I’d like to talk to my countrymen again and I don’t mean shouting across the barricades. Perhaps one way to do that is to revive the principles of federalism so that red states can be free to be “bitter clinger” territory and blue states Prius-land. It will mean that the federal government, and particularly the judiciary, will have to restrain itself and desist from their outlandish definitions of “interstate commerce” and “equal protection,” two phrases that have been misconstrued to gut our ability to craft policy close to home. If that doesn’t work, or if people aren’t even willing to try, I wouldn’t be opposed to a cordial divorce. If a few states have to secede from the Union (California? Texas? Oregon? Hawaii?) to make this life in this country bearable again, that’s a price I’d be willing to pay.
America is two very different countries within the borders of one nation and it will probably remain that way for the foreseeable future.
If 1984 was “morning in America again” then 2016 must be the stroke of midnight.