Nothing gives global authoritarian leaders more satisfaction than to see and hear of discord in America, and we don’t seem to be able to keep ourselves from playing into their playbook.
How divided are we? Time Magazine wrote after the Capitol Riot that, “There is no advanced democracy in the world more politically divided, or politically dysfunctional, than the United States today. How did the world’s most powerful country get to this point? Ernest Hemingway once wrote in “The Sun Also Rises”, that it happens “gradually, then suddenly.”
In today’s world, it seems, it’s all about politics, not policies that move the country onward and upward. Compromise, conciliation and cooperation are out. The zero-sum performance of we must win and they must lose are in.
It’s all too familiar. We wage battles amongst one another over the validity of a presidential election, gun controls, race, gender, abortion, vaccines, masks, immigration, the Affordable Care Act, the American Recovery Act, tuition reimbursements, who’s better at supporting the police, and all from our perches in red states and blue states.
Social media has become a megaphone that amps up our discourse. Talk proliferates of a looming civil war. The well-respected 85-year-old conservative think tank, the American Enterprise Institute, published a recent survey finding that 39% of Republicans support the use of violence to achieve political goals.
Best-selling author Daniel Silva recently wrote that, “For three and a half hours, rioters roamed the marble temple of American democracy, smashing windows, breaking down doors, ransacking offices, defacing works of art, stealing documents and computers, emptying their bowels and bladders, searching for lawmakers to kidnap or kill, in particular the vice president of the United States or the speaker of the house. For some it was the intention to hang vice president Mike Pence for treason on the gallows they had erected on the Capitol lawn.”
Is this escalation of civil strife largely due to the hardened and coarse rhetoric of political and social leadership or the advent of digital media? Samuel Morse, arguably the father of digital media, sent his first coded digital message in 1844. The message? “What hath God wrought?” How prophetic.
It’s not as though there haven’t been divisions in America in the past. One doesn’t have to go back very far in American history to be reminded of how slavery and civil rights divided America, or a woman’s right to vote, or when Senator Joe McCarthy and acolytes divided the nation with accusations of communists everywhere infiltrating American institutions. Then there was a divided America on whether to get involved in the wars in Europe, Iraq or Vietnam. Or we could go back to the founding of our nation when James Madison lost his fight to have the U.S. Senate be representative of a states’ population; but, that issue was resolved through statesmanship, a brokered agreement, also known as the Great Compromise of 1787.
Today, American democracy and its capitalistic underpinnings are threatened by external forces in an extraordinarily dynamic period of time. Powerful autocratic nation-states like Russia, China, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Iran and North Korea are challenging the ability of liberal democracies like the United States to compete in today’s fast-paced world.
Today, digital media is saturated with misinformation and disinformation giving our competitors unprecedented leverage in undermining the fundamental nature of our nation and our democratic ideals. Nothing pleases them more than to see us so divided. We are a nation in which party identity seemingly trumps country, party winnings seemingly more important than solutions to strengthen our nation, or of great compromises demonstrating our collective will to compete with and lead the world in innovation, productivity and human rights. We are losing our coveted appeal to be the world’s aspirational example of hope.
President Abraham Lincoln spoke on the subject of slavery at a Republican State Convention in 1858 famously quoting, “A house divided against itself cannot stand.” But the origins of that quote are Biblical (Mark 3:24) — “If a kingdom is divided against itself it cannot stand. If a house is divided against itself it cannot stand.”
As a nation, with our innate resources and capabilities, we have so much to gain. But divided against each other, we have so much to lose. And as Hemingway so succinctly put it when it comes to losing, it happens gradually, and then very suddenly.
Bill Sims is a Hillsboro resident, retired president of the Denver Council on Foreign Relations, an author and runs a small farm in Berrysville with his wife. He is a former educator, executive and foundation president.