Americans are badly fractured and fragmented, and over this past year the situation has gotten exponentially worse. On one side of this lethal political divide are progressives, mostly Democrats; on the other, conservatives, mostly Republicans. The former tend to be wealthier, more educated, and younger than their rivals. The latter consists of those who earn substantially less, are less educated, and grayer. At the moment, the latter group is growing smaller and weaker, its ranks diminishing with each new birth in the country.
The animosity between the two sides is intensified by the looming presidential election in November. Add to this the death of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg and the probable avalanche of mail-in ballots due to COVID-19—not to mention that both sides have indicated that they may not trust the numbers reported on election eve or beyond—and we may be facing the perfect political storm. For better or worse, Americans seem on a collision course with destiny. What is at stake is nothing short of deciding the American way of life.
Why is America so deeply splintered, and why do the two groups harbor such profound distrust and intense enmity for each other? What is this internecine quarrel fundamentally about and why, for both sides, are the stakes so high and the costs so dear?
To my mind, the dispute is about what it means to be an American. It is about the values that anchor the American ethos. One side views the purpose of America as expressed in the maxims that have guided the nation since its birth, summarized in the principles of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. According to this perspective, all human beings are created equal and the aim of government is to secure the equal natural and civil rights of its citizens. From this vantage point, government is limited in its scope, acting the part of an impartial umpire as the American people participate in the experiment in self-government.
In contrast, progressives believe that the traditional modes and orders of the nation are outdated and advocate new ones that can meet the needs of an advanced industrial and technocratic society. This includes growing the size and scope of the national government and its administrative agencies, especially with respect to regulatory and social justice issues. Decisions by various political and policy experts take the place of local townhalls and venues of self-government. Centralization replaces federalism, and governmental bureaucracy supplants voluntary associations. In essence, professionalism and expertise replace civic engagement.
Instead of welcoming the political dialogue, debate, deliberation, and yes, even cacophony produced by separation of powers and checks and balances, progressives favor a more unified, orderly system staffed by a hierarchy of specialists. While progressives seek to empower the administrative state in the name of the people and in the service of enhancing democracy, conservatives view the progressive agenda as crowding out any real expression of the popular voice and undermining the authority of public opinion.
The current political stand-off did not just happen overnight, and it is not merely a partisan or petty squabble. It is at bottom a philosophical disagreement that can be traced back to the battle between the Enlightenment and German Idealism (or, to name names, between Locke, Jefferson, and Madison on the one hand and Darwin, Hegel, and Marx on the other).
To many Americans, this resumé of ideological struggle may sound like what I just said that it isn’t—that is, like a petty academic quarrel with little or no relevance to the real world.
But nothing could be further from the truth. This is a war of ideas with real consequences for the nation and the lives of ordinary people. It informs and shapes debates on issues such as abortion, affirmative action, taxation, marriage and family, and many others. While this conflict has slowly been gaining momentum for over a century, it is now, in our lifetime and on our watch, that the two vying ideological storms are about to collide, possibly cataclysmically.
Imagine the November scenario if a critical mass of Americans refuse to accept the election results and engage in violent remonstration. Will armed forces be called in to keep the peace? Will the rioters heed the law enforcement officers? Will law enforcement officers be able to do their job? Will they even exert themselves sufficiently to control the unrest before it gets out of hand, given that they are considered by many Americans as a big part of the problem—as the enemy, even?
I hope this does not happen in the aftermath of the presidential election. But we should be prepared for something like it, and for difficult times ahead regardless.
In the natural world, the collision of two powerful storm systems is called the “Fujiwhara effect.” An example of this is what occurred in July 2017, when Hurricanes Hilary and Irwin collided. As these systems closed in on one other, they began rotating around each other like pinwheel cyclones—“dancing” with one another, as meteorologists say. That dance, though, was much more like an Argentine tango than a Viennese waltz.
The Fujiwhara effect results in either the two storms merging into one and establishing a combined, new center of rotation, or else in one of the storms spiraling inward, dying as it fuels the dominant cyclone’s triumphant and exacting course.
The latter is more likely to characterize America’s political future. Given the fundamentally rival claims of each side in the current ideological battle, it is hard to imagine a compromise that would allow the contending ideas to merge into a shared new epicenter. The progressive elites have little respect for middle America, and middle America feels more and more resentment toward (at least in their view) the contemptuous elite.
To add personal injury to public insult, the children of middle America are being educated by the progressive elites in that bastion of American progressivism, our colleges and universities. And these children are coming back home all “woke” and dismissive—if not also derisively scornful—of their parents’ most cherished beliefs and convictions. While I do not know which side will emerge victorious in the 2020 election or beyond, it is clear that the momentum is on the side of the progressives.
Not on Our Watch
As ordinary citizens across the nation understand, there is a storm over America that threatens to leave a path of destruction in its wake. The situation is clearly dire, and solace is difficult to be had.
But I myself found a bit of it just the other day, when I was at Hillsdale College for the dedication of a memorial to James Madison. After the ceremony, I joined a few friends in the quad, and we talked about the statues of Madison, Washington, Jefferson, Monroe, Lincoln and many others that have recently been torn down. We also talked, more generally, about the current assault on the American way of life. Before we became too despairing, though, one fellow recounted a conversation he had once had with Professor Harry Jaffa about the seemingly inevitable closing of the American story. After all, it is a truism that no regime lasts forever. But Jaffa’s response was neither one of resignation nor false hope. Instead, in typical Jaffa fashion, it combined Socratic pugnacity with a lesson—even a clarion call—to his fellow citizens: “Not on my watch,” Harry Jaffa said. “Not on my watch.”