Today, America faces a crisis of coming apart that we have witnessed only twice before in our 240-year history.
Often in the past, we have experienced political tensions that are then resolved by an election. But what is now occurring reflects a clash of values, perspectives and group identity that threatens to turn us into two nations
Tbe first moment in our history that embodied this kind of threat was 1860. Despite 60 years of efforts to find compromise, slavery – a fundamental contradiction to democracy – finally tore us apart. Congress could no longer agree on anything. There were two economies, North and South. In the 1856 Dred Scott decision, the Supreme Court declared that black slaves – even if they escaped to the North – remained the property of their masters and must be returned to them.
The political system fell apart, a new Republican Party – committed to opposing slavery – was born. John Brown launched the Harper’s Ferry raid, making violence the new language of political discourse. One year later, the Civil War broke out. More than 600,000 deaths later, the country was reunited after the Union Army’s victory.
For 10 years, Southern Reconstruction governments worked for public education, voting rights for black men and improved social welfare programs. But then Republican presidential candidate Rutherford B. Hayes called for removing all federal troops from the South and abandoned racial reform in order to secure the electoral votes from three Southern states that he needed for victory. The national government completely abandoned support of racial equality, and in 1896, the Supreme Court, in Plessy v. Ferguson, ruled that segregation between the races was constitutional.
With the New Deal, and particularly World War II, the nation was called once again to confront the contradictions of its past over race, gender discrimination and economic inequality. That set the stage for a powerful new civil rights movement, which in the 1960s led to exploding social protests among blacks, women activists and young people who passionately opposed American involvement in the Vietnam War.
That led to the second greatest moment of social, cultural and political division, in the election year of 1968. Anti-war demonstrators challenged the police, and race riots erupted, despite – and partly in response to – the civil rights movement. Black Power became a rallying cry for young African-Americans. Women’s liberation groups multiplied. And what Richard Nixon called the “Silent Majority” – primarily white, middle-class Americans who felt insulted and reviled by the social movements – rallied in support of cultural conservatism. With the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy, the country was on the verge of coming apart. Nixon, the candidate of the “Silent Majority,” was elected, and decades of political conservatism followed.
Today, we face a third moment of total division. The Supreme Court eviscerated the 1965 Voting Rights Act in its Shelby decision of 2011. Immediately, a number of Southern states – now presumably “non-racist,” according to the court – started to pass voter ID laws and subvert black voting rights. The Republican congressional leadership pledged to never cooperate with President Obama, and ended nearly all conversations across party lines.
Then in 2016, Donald Trump was selected as the Republican presidential nominee. He galvanized angry voters, especially white working class males who felt “left out.” Blaming the Democrats for destroying the American Dream – even though they had brought the country out of the 2008 recession – he pursued a campaign of scapegoating the “others,” primarily minority groups whom he blamed for America’s decline.
Mexican immigrants, he charged, were rapists and criminals. All Muslims should be banned from the country. Blacks in American cities were uneducated, poor and without hope. Once again, issues of race, immigration, gender equality and cultural division over basic American values dominated the political landscape.
As a result, we are now on the edge of a social and political divide that goes beyond even that of 1968 and threatens a new cultural civil war of “us” against “them.”
So what will we do – vote for fragmentation and lasting division, or for rebuilding our national community and seeking improvement in our society across party lines?
It’s our decision. But we should at least be aware of the stakes at hand: a nation committed to standing together or opting to go to war.
William H. Chafe is an American historian from Duke University. The former president of the Organization of American Historians, he has written 13 books, the latest of which is “Hillary and Bill: The Clintons and the Politics of the Personal.”