Can America unify and rediscover a common national identity? Or are we condemned to political tribalism and polarization? To these gloomy questions the gloomy answer might be: If history is any guide, it would take a war.
At least that is the conclusion some contemporary analysts have reached, most recently Ezra Klein of Vox.com, who notes, correctly, that global conflicts helped forge 20th-century Americanism; we sublimated internal divisions while battling external foes.
Klein is also right that current liberal prescriptions for restoring national unity often rely too heavily on technocratic policy ideas or vague pleas for attitudinal change.
There could be a peaceful alternative, though it would require lowering the stakes and reaching more deeply into the American past.
First, stakes-lowering: Instead of unity or shared identity, let’s shoot for cohesion, in the sense of a modus vivendi — not love, peace — between the parties and their respective constituencies. It’s true that war unified us in the past, but impermanently, as today’s resurgent ideological and regional divisions show. Cohesion is a worthy but more achievable second-best objective, whose very modesty might make it more durable.
Second, history-plumbing: As Klein implies, the sinking of the USS Maine in Havana Harbor on Feb. 15, 1898, set off a new era; on that day, and roughly every two decades thereafter, Americans put aside their differences to fight common enemies around the world. Then nearly a half-century of Cold War followed World War II.
It was a period of relatively muted partisanship during which the federal government emerged as a true national state, and long-standing sources of national division, especially the original sin of white supremacy and racism, received sustained national attention, governmental and otherwise. Since the Cold War’s end in 1991, by contrast — well, you know that part.
However, much earlier in our national experience, there was a different mechanism of cohesion. Between the early 1760s, when revolutionary sentiment began to stir in the North American colonies, and the Spanish-American War in 1898, Americans repeatedly employed compromise. Or perhaps that should be Compromise — as in the Missouri Compromise, the Compromise of 1850 and the Compromise of 1877.
These were not ordinary split- the-difference legislative deals, though that happened, too. The capital-C Compromises were grand bargains across openly acknowledged differences of ideology, party and region. Each averted a crisis, buying time for economic and social development. The Constitution, drafted in 1787, was the first such pact; the others occurred at roughly 30-year intervals for the next nine decades.
Every Compromise had the same flaw, of course: They were for whites only. In attempting to preserve political stability at the expense of African American rights, they perpetuated slavery or, in the case of the Reconstruction-ending 1877 deal, post-emancipation racial injustice.
The Compromise of 1850, which exchanged the admission of California as a free state and the end of slave trading in the nation’s capital for an odious Fugitive Slave Act, failed to prevent the Civil War.
So any Compromise today would have to salvage what was wise about the 18th- and 19th-century attempts — the willingness to make mutual concessions of principle; the understanding that division and dysfunction threaten everyone’s core beliefs and interests — without repeating their cardinal sins.
Could it work? Just looking around, you’d have to say no. Structurally, the electoral system punishes calm deliberation and rewards ideological purity. The two political parties are at each other’s throats and internally deeply divided. The presidency is in the grip of an unstable amateur. As for an essential component of past Compromises — political talent — the only Henry Clay on Capitol Hill is made of bronze and standing in National Statuary Hall.
There can be no compromise on the basic achievements of the centuries-long struggle for equal rights, which means no Compromise at the expense of people of color this time around. The willingness of Republicans under President Trump to play politics with white identity may indeed prove insuperably toxic.
How uncomfortably like the 1850s. Still: On many of the actual issues facing the country, the parties’ differences may be more reconcilable than they say.
As recently as 2013, a bipartisan immigration bill passed the Senate with 68 votes. Republicans, having failed to repeal Obamacare, are now reshaping it; next stop, acquiescence. Democrats’ latest tax proposal accepts the basic framework of the one Republicans adopted on a party-line vote last year. Everyone wants infrastructure. There is a growing consensus that we need a new and more skeptical approach to China.
Federalism, too, increasingly functions as an escape valve for political and policy conflict: Ohio has fracking; New York, no. Maybe the national minimum wage won’t go up, but blue states will have a higher one than red states.
National unity may be beyond our reach; national cohesion is not. To achieve it in the future, though, requires understanding how we’ve achieved it in the past.