We are so divided that we can’t do what is necessary to beat a devious virus that keeps spinning out mutations as we procrastinate about getting it under control. This pandemic is destroying the American economy, and our divisions over simple health measures like masks and vaccines are destroying the American spirit. But our divisions are not real. At least we were not this divided until one political party decided to gin up our differences because it offered an engineered political advantage.
We live right next door to each other. We used to be family and neighbors. Now we are enemies. Now we don’t know what we can and cannot say to each other. The right-wing media used the way workers felt cheated when factories left their towns to move South or to move overseas. They whipped up a vague sense of grievance into a movement of defiance. They made sure that this group of angry Americans would be armed, and they used guns as an issue to divide us, to make us feel afraid of each other. They enlisted the aggrieved as an army to make a war between Democrats and Republicans. They escalated feelings of xenophobia brought on by terrorism (when we lost our invincibility on 9/11/2001) and they turned our fear of terrorism into an argument for nativism and white supremacy.
It all happened in the minds and hearts of Americans. The only way to trace that it happened at all is in the battlelines we face over every issue that concerns us as Americans. We see it in the way we insisted that our schools switch to common core, that we stress nonfiction materials over literature. We see it in the movement to charter schools designed to perpetuate segregation. We see in attitudes towards police reform and bail reform intended to end racism in our justice system. We see it in the way people who needed health care still were persuaded to reject the Medicaid expansion.We see it in the Wall. We see it in the fight over whether there is election fraud in America or not. We see it in the willingness to break with Constitutional law in order to exploit our differences over the issue of abortion and increase our divisions. We saw it starkly during the pandemic when half of American became convinced that wearing a mask would destroy their freedom – freedom to do what, die? We see it again in the refusal of half of our population to get a vaccine that has proven to be safe and effective.
These divisions are fake, they are a product of some of the most successful propaganda that America (possibly the world) has ever seen. One political party has turned common sense upside down and inside out to gain political advantage. They have whispered in people ears over air pods and car radios. They have ranted and raved over televisions and computers, and whipped people into a frenzy about the supposed hypocrisy of the Democratic Party, while their own hypocrisy has been downplayed and explained away with twisted logic — logic which forces a wedge between the convinced and those who are not susceptible to the harangues of obvious demagogues.
Neighbors and family who loved Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck, and even discredited sources like Bill O’Reilly, have been offered a constant menu of replacements. Tucker Carlsen is the new darling they listen to all day in living rooms, kitchens and garages. Sean Hannity, best friend of Trump is still around offering up his smarmy harangues to make sure Americans can no longer trust each other, to make us want to feel such levels of angry frustration with each other that we want to brawl in the streets or shoot each other, although (and thank goodness) most of us stop short of that so far. This propaganda has been so successful that it is now self-sustaining and, perhaps, permanent.
This disingenuous attack on the United States of America may have succeeded even beyond the imaginations of those who began it. It may have begun as a political ploy to turn a minority party into a force that defied elections and stayed in office reliably. The party had objectives that they knew would help them succeed. They planned to stuff the courts and were dismayed when Obama was elected, twice. But after two years GOP machinations held and they controlled Congress, pursued a policy of obstruction and were able to minimalize the ‘damage’ to the courts. Republicans were able to block Obama when he should have been able to fill a seat in the Supreme Court, using a political argument they abandoned at the first opportunity. They allied with Evangelicals and Catholics on the issue of abortion, enlisting churches to preach propaganda from pulpits (which violated their tax-free status) partly from genuine conviction, partly for reasons of political exploitation.
By recruiting individual states and making sure that their statehouses were run by Republicans, the GOP was able to use the old Civil War states’ rights fight, used to defuse Reconstruction, to further divide us into ‘Red States’ and ‘Blue States’. (Of course, these governments do not accurately reflect the attitudes of all the residents of these states). They argued for small federal government while also enabling an omnipotent federal executive branch headed by an all-powerful President, backed up by his own Justice Department dedicated to defending the President’s all-powerful state. Republicans were, in this manner, willing to switch out a democracy/republic for a dictatorship and their brainwashed crew did/does not even flinch, did/does not see the seditious intent in invoking two incompatible approaches to American governance.
Civil War resentments nursed for over a century, bubbled to the surface as they had in the years of our battles over civil rights. Rich southerners had never accepted that their ‘slaves’ were free and equal citizens of America. They consistently offered faux evidence that black folks were mentally inferior and only suited for physical labor. They have kept up a drumbeat of racism as a bass line in America since they lost the Civil War in 1865. This ‘Southern pride’ was kept alive by our entire nation when the federal government stepped away from interfering in violence during Reconstruction and Jim Crow, when they left matters up to local sheriffs. The Civil War has reared its divisive spirit to add intensity to more modern grievances and has added to contemporary racial animosities resulting from segregation, what appears to be racist policing, and generational inequality.
How do we heal our divide? How do we get our disaffected family and friends to recognize how they are being used by one political party to kill off a rival party? How do we help those who live among us realize that what the Republicans have to offer them will not prepare them in any meaningful way for the changes America must own and adapt to? Computer chips changed everything. Since this is being written on the 20 th anniversary of the attacks on the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and possibly on Washington DC, there is much talk of how 9/11 changed America, how it made us less self-assured, more vulnerable. But our parent’s way of life had already been changed so much by job losses and Vietnam and the 1960’s, and climate change, perhaps 9/11 was just the last straw. Perhaps anger was in some American hearts just waiting to be stoked by those among us who were most hungry for power.
If we can’t unite over a pandemic, over something that is clearly apolitical, how will we unite over anything? Our national sadness and frustrations are with us every day, and this is tearing our nation apart. People are determined to pretend that it is fine to be joyful even in the face of so much upheaval and grief, but there is probably a price to pay for keeping up a pretense of pleasure and personal indulgence at such a moment. So far, no one has appeared with a recipe that will heal us, but we can always hope. The dialectic, if there is such a thing, may eventually predict a swing towards unity once again. However, it is scary to think what might happen to unite us if a pandemic doesn’t.