Its no secret that America is divided. Americans can't agree on facts, on what our problems are, on what the issues we face, on what our values should be. We are a nation without a unifying idea. Americans hold to liberty, but our definitions of liberty vary substantially, and what we believe liberty looks like, varies substantially. Some want to be free from collectivist coercion, while others wish to be free from individualist responsibility. What makes America America? What unites the States? Perhaps we should look at history as a guide.
America has always been a story of conflict. A story of conflict between different peoples. The first white people to come to America came for two very different reasons: religious liberty, and economic opportunity. Persecuted religious groups settled in Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, Connecticut, and several other states. Economic opportunists settled in Virginia, New York, and other states as well. Jamestown was founded to exploit the cash crop, Tobacco. Pilgrims famously settled in Massachusetts and had the first thanksgiving with the Wampanoags.
Conflict resulted between the settlers and the natives. There were periods of peace, but slowly Europeans pushed the native peoples west. Sometimes the settlers had the natives sign agreements that sold their land, but since the natives did not have the same view of land as property that the Europeans did, conflict ensued over this deep and profound misunderstanding. Other reasons led to conflict as well, such as tribalistic prejudice between different people groups. The belief that those not part of your group don't deserve the same treatment as those within.
So whats fascinating about this early period of settlement is that its a mixed story. Its a conflicting story. Its hard to reconcile the motives of those that simply wanted better lives for themselves, and wanted to be free to live as they chose, with what they did to the people they encountered. This is what draws me to history. Its this conflicting dynamic that forces us to see ourselves for who we truly are, a complex mess that have good and bad intentions, that take actions that result in good and bad outcomes. We cannot foresee the outcomes because we cannot see the future. We can only guess, and try our best. I believe history, when studied properly, serves as a mirror that allows us to better understand ourselves. At its worst, history serves as propaganda for an agenda. Anyways, getting off my history soapbox and getting back on my America soapbox.
Slavery soon entered the picture as well. Since the demand for cash crops like tobacco was so high, and the supply of labor was so low, farmers in Virginia and elsewhere began relying on slave labor. Before long, it was entrenched institutionally into the very fabric of several states, while other states made it illegal. This would become another source of conflict, that eventually broke out into the civil war.
Our nation was born out of conflict between Americans and their British overlords. The British wished to restrict Americas trade and wanted Americans to only purchase goods from Britain. Adding insult to injury, the goods Americans were forced to buy would be taxed. Since Americans had no representation in the British government, this led to the cry, "No taxation without representation!" War broke out, and America won her independence.
America is a complex nation, with a complex past. Its a nation founded on lofty ideals, that its failed to uphold time and time again. The difference between America and other nations, ultimately, is that America rooted its identity in the ideal of liberty and justice for all. So while other nations have sinned, they don't suffer an identity crisis every time they do, because America claims to be for ideals that it violates regularly, which isn't surprising, given how lofty they are by historical standards.
This brings us to today. We have several different narratives of our history, depending on ones angle/point of view. We have different emphasis on the ideals America espouses. Some emphasize justice more, others emphasize equal rights, others emphasize freedom, while others, unfortunately, emphasize a raw tribalistic assertion of power. Often this raw desire for power over others, is cloaked in supposedly good intentions, such as "manifest destiny," or the twisted paternalism many slaveholders utilized to defend their institution. We must be wary of narratives that divide, because often the point of such narratives is to dehumanize a certain group. Once that group is dehumanized, actions that would be unthinkable to commit to members of our tribe, become justified.
I fear today that many ideals are giving way to raw tribalism. Its easy to see that many people's animosity is no longer directed at opposing ideals, but at opposing people. Its been shown that people have been self sorting themselves geographically into tribes that agree with them. Its also been shown that overall geographical mobility has been declining, further contributing to the isolation of people groups from each other. It often seems given our history that conflict is inevitable.
We must ask ourselves how we wish to resolve conflict. Theoretically, our constitutional representative government is supposed to resolve these conflicts. It seems however, to be doing the opposite. It seems that our government, due to structural faults imbedded in its history, is actually a driver of partisan anger. Representatives draw their own districts, guaranteeing concentrations of likeminded voters in districts. It seems nothing can get done nowadays without one party rule with super majorities. The system was built to force compromise, but what if no one is willing to compromise? Then problems will just simmer and get worse and worse, and nothing will be done about them.
Its even worse than this because more and more is dependent on rule making by executive agencies such as the Environmental Protection Agency, which are under the purview of the President, and on executive orders. This combination, along with the stultified incompetence of Congress, means that our system is increasingly becoming one of, "who gets the bully pulpit for the next 4 years?" This is a dangerous system, one in which its possible to see dramatic shifts in policy between administrations, without a concurrent change in the actual law.
This means the system is not withstanding the pressure of our current cultural hyper partisanship. Its not working as intended by the founders. The founders intended the checks and balances to lead to compromise, but instead it has led to responsibility being pushed to the office with the least to lose (due to term limits), the Presidency. Our Congress has increasingly become irrelevant, and the Presidency has become too relevant. Its not good when one election for one person can change the entire direction of regulating agencies and foreign policy, meanwhile only requiring a simple majority of Electoral votes.
If you do yet understand why this shift is bad, let me lay it out for you clearly. Its because this outsourcing of responsibility by Congress leads to a decreased need for compromise. This means the tribalist impulses will receive more fuel than ever before. Even worse, this tribalist impulse, when divorced from idealism, leads to a desire for a strongman, someone who can push through their agenda. This puts even more pressure on the President to usurp authority. There is a spiraling self reinforcing dynamic to this.
Its frustrating even for me, because there are some things I think desperately need reform. Yet I don't have perfect knowledge, and neither does anyone else. Its arrogant to presume any of us do, and if you agree with this, then you should also be humble about your own beliefs, and the inherent desire to impose them on others. Its important to be open to listen to others, and to constantly search for truth and compromise, because ultimately, even if we don't end up agreeing, both of our belief systems are enriched by better understanding the views of others. Listening is a rare thing these days, but given our history, we should begin to, otherwise we may repeat parts of our history that we disdain.