You hear a lot these days about how the country just might be on the verge of splitting. I’ve even speculated about that myself, as there seems to be so little common ground left between how the left and the right view what’s best for America, or even what America has been and what it’s supposed to be. This conflict, in large part, was responsible for the election of Donald Trump—a political earthquake if there has ever been one, which has exposed the fault lines than run through not only the Democrat Party and GOP, but also the media, the culture and the very foundations of our Republic.
It has also caused the battle lines to be drawn, with issues that have long simmered on the back burner suddenly flaring up. Immigration is probably the most visible, with the crisis at the border exposing in sharp relief not only the Democrats’ cynical ploy to remake the political makeup of the country by allowing millions of illegals to come in, but also the GOP’s refusal to deal with the issue. Conservatives also see their freedom of speech under assault—not so much through government censorship, but through tech companies that have appointed themselves as the final arbiter of what constitutes acceptable discourse, or universities that invent flimsy reasons to disinvite right-leaning speakers from their campuses.
In short, it’s gotten pretty vicious out there—which has increasingly pushed the right to adopt the same tribal instincts that have guided the left for years. To conservatives, it has become more than a matter of politics. It had turned into a matter of survival—the protection of not merely their policy preferences, but their families, their values, their way of life. When that’s how you view the stakes, you’re gonna stick with your tribe. And right now, if you’re on the right, the leader of that tribe happens to be Donald J. Trump.
Peggy Noonan has an interesting take on where we’ve ended up in the Wall Street Journal today. In her column, she remembers how fractured the country was back when she grew up in the 1960s—Vietnam, the draft, women’s liberation, civil rights—but notes how much the divide has grown more personal, with partisans staking out territory and never giving so much as an inch.
Both sides will be intensely human. And inhuman. Because the past few years the character of our political divisions has changed, and this must be noted again. People are proud of their bitterness now. Old America used to accept our splits as part of the price of being us—numerous, varied, ornery. Current America, with its moderating institutions (churches) going down and its dividing institutions (the internet) rising, sees our polarization not as something to be healed but a reason for being, something to get up for. There’s a finality to it, a war-to-the-death quality.
There’s a lot of truth in this, but also something that Noonan almost—but not quite—touches upon: The organized left has actually thought this way for decades, whereas with the right it’s a comparatively recent phenomenon—a reaction to the slow, steady, relentless march progressives have been making through the institutions that form the basis of American society. Only now that progressives have fully taken over academia, the media and the popular culture—and also indoctrinated generations of young Americans in their belief system—are they confident enough to finally pull off the mask and make their true intentions known.
That’s some scary stuff.
Noonan goes on to say:
It’s not enough that contraceptives be covered in the government-mandated plan; the nuns must conform. It’s not enough you be sensitive to the effect of your words and language; you must be punished for saying or thinking the wrong thing. It’s not enough that gay marriage is legal; you must be forced to bake the cake. It won’t do that attention be paid to scientific arguments on the environment; America must upend itself with green new deals or be judged not to care about children.
Nothing can be moderate or incremental, everything must be sweeping and definitive. It is all so maximalist, and bullying.
Also very true. But did you notice what those policies she mentions have in common? They’re all examples of the left trying to impose their agenda on the country, and force everyone to conform to their vision. If all this is part and parcel of the culture war, then it is most certainly the progressives who are the aggressors.
That is not, however, the way the mainstream media and the popular culture, portrays what’s been going on—and that’s a huge part of the problem. When one side of the partisan divide is always presented as noble, virtuous and on the side of truth and justice while the other is always presented as bigoted, hateful and evil, that not only encourages extremism—it virtually guarantees it.
In the case of progressives, this one-sided presentation gives them license to indulge their worst instincts, while inviting all kinds of corruption because they will never be held to account. In the case of conservatives, the opposite is true, with them being held to ridiculous standards that demand they constantly prove how they’re not racist, not sexist, not out to kill people with tax cuts and destroy the planet with fossil fuels. After a while, extremism simply becomes the status quo.
What’s more is that none of this is an accident. The organized left wants things this way. It’s one of the ways in which they’ve edged the Overton Window farther and farther in their direction. Need proof that the strategy has worked? A scant few years ago, Democrats would never have dreamed of openly advocating illegal immigration; now some have declared they want to abolish ICE and open the borders. Bill Clinton once talked about abortion as “safe, legal and rare”; now some blue states are allowing abortion up to the moment of birth. The list of issues goes on and on, but you get the idea. As far as the media are concerned, progressives get to define the terms of the debate.
So long as that’s the case, I don’t see the divide ever getting bridged.