Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Can America ever be united again?

The Glorious War of the Secession (aka the War Between the States or the Civil War) ended 151 years ago, at which time America was proclaimed once again to be the United States. Now, in the twilight of the Obama presidency, which was supposed to bring all Americans together at last, regardless of race, colour, etc etc, the people of America (if not the states) find themselves more disunited than at any time in the last century-and-a-half.

That is the theme of Rick Perlstein's Nixonland, recommended here on Sunday. Mr. Perlstein dates the present polarization American culture and politics from the hippy-dippy 60s, which saw the disintegration of the liberal consensus of the Kennedy-Johnson years and the division of the "United" States into two mutually antagonistic nations -- the Red Nation and the Blue Nation. That division is not just geographic. There are plenty of "Reds" (not the Communist variety) to be found in Massachusetts and California, and "Blues" in Kansas and -- dare I say it -- Texas.

Hellery Clinton claims that she is the one and only candidate for POTUS who can bring the country together again, and make the American states and people united. This is laughable. About the only thing that unites the Reds (and large numbers of Blues) is the belief that Ms Clinton is a phony and a crook. Even if Hellery were sincere and (God forbid) elected, the task of uniting the country is beyond the power of any more mortal. Here's what Mr. Perlstein says in the closing paragraphs of his book:

What Richard Nixon left behind was the very terms of our national self-image: a notion that there are two kinds of Americans. On the one side, that "Silent Majority", the "nonshouters". The middle-class, middle American, suburban, exurban, and rural coalition who call themselves, now, "values voters", "people of faith", "patriots", or even, simply, "Republicans" -- and who feel themselves condescended to by snobby opinion-making elites, and who rage about un-Americans, anti-Christians, amoralists, aliens.

On the other side are the "liberals", the "cosmopolitans", the "intellectuals", the "professionals" -- "Democrats". Who say they see shouting in opposition to injustice as a higher form of patriotism. Or say "live and let live." Who believe that to have "values" has more to do with a willingness to extend aid to the downtrodden than where, or if, you happen to worship -- but who look down on the first category as unwitting dupes of feckless elites who exploit sentimental pieties to aggrandize their wealth, start wars, ruin lives.

Both populations -- to speak in ideal types -- are equally, essentially, tragically American. And both have learned to consider the other not quite American at all. The argument over Richard Nixon, pro and con, gave us the language for this war.

Do Americans not hate each other enough to fantasize about killing one another, in cold blood, over political and cultural disagreements? It would be hard to argue that they do not. How did Nixonland end? It has not ended yet.

A reader has objected that Rick Perlstein wrote those words in 2008, before the election of Barack Hussein Obama, the first black (or African-American, whatever) President, the one who has healed America and brought all Americans together. Has the Prez himself not said that race relations in the USA are better now than at any time in history? Well yes, that's what he said, but the claim that the war of which Mr. Perlstein writes ended somewhere between 2008 and 2016 is nonsense. If anything, the cracks in the American body politic have widened, and the war has intensified.

The 2015 American Values Survey, conducted by the Public Religion Research Institute, is titled "Anxiety, Nostalgia, and Mistrust". It found that about three-quarters of Republicans believe that the federal government looks out for the interests of blacks, Hispanics, gays and women. But not quite half of Republicans think that the government looks out for Christians or middle-class people. Democrats, on the other hand, overwhelmingly think that the federal government looks out for the rich and big business.

Writing in the Economist this week, "Lexington" asserts that the distrust between groups exposed in the survey means that "it is not useful to say that most Americans support policy X or Y. The real question fo ask voters is: Do you think this policy helps or hurts 'people like you'? The query reliably exposes deep gulfs between different races, generations and parties." Which is just what Mr. Perlstein said, eight years ago.

Footnote and caveat: When I recommended Nixonland, I should have included a warning that Mr. Perlstein is badly in need of an editor/proofreader. [Does anyone, anywhere, employ proofreaders any more? What's wrong with Spiel-Chequer? Ed.] His book runs to 748 pages of fairly dense type, and that's not counting the endnotes. And where, I wonder, does the author get words like "inspirit" (for "inspire", I guess)? If you want to finish Nixonland before you vote, start now.

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