“This election has divided Americans like few in history. Can the country put itself back together again?”
Are you ever nostalgic for the bygone days when the cable networks sorted Americans neatly into a red team and a blue team, and we fought over the patriot Act, the Iraq War, and gay marriage? There was a lot to lament. Many people felt anxious about how divided the country seemed. “Try to see it my way,” The Beatles counseled. “Only time will tell if I am right or I am wrong. While you see it your way, there’s a chance that we might fall apart before too long.” Nor can we take for granted that the next generation will overcome today’s divisions. After studying post-conflict Bosnia, Borislava Manojlovic, a researcher at Seton Hall University, found that members of the generation that started the Balkan wars now tend to be more tolerant toward one another than their children are. A 24-year-old explained why to World Affairs: “The people who fought the last war had lived together for forty-some years,” he said. “They still have memories of the good old times … We are a ticking time bomb.” In the U.S., the World War II generation worked together by necessity. Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that, as that generation passed from the scene—succeeded by Baby Boomers, who began coming of age in the polarized 1960s—the country began to splinter. This fragmentation has brought more intolerance. Indeed, the Baby Boomers’ kids, the Millennials, are more likely than past generations to favor political intolerance in the form of free-speech restrictions. Even if America is unlikely to descend into another civil war, our present trajectory carries huge risks. Millennials may take charge of the country without much memory of a functional Congress, tolerant public discourse, or social circles that transcend our atomized subcultures. The good news is that counteracting polarization is not a lost cause, if only Americans are circumspect enough to recognize what we have in common. American identity --unlike, say, Danish identity-- does not revolve around shared ancestry. Rather, it is grounded in a shared, if unrealized, aspiration to guarantee the rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. We may disagree on how to get there, but it’s better to cooperate with those you believe to be misguided than to risk mutual destruction.