Americans want unity, but achieving it requires acknowledging that we’ve never truly had it.
In these politically polarized times, many Americans, regardless of their political proclivities, are in anguish over our national disunity, hoping for some person or event to restore harmony. I share these feelings.
However, America has never really been a unified nation. Not that we have always been disjointed and dysfunctional. The United States has been united at times. But our nation’s history is not one of purposeful unity, and if we want it to become that, we first need to acknowledge the past.
America was born at a moment of violent compromise. Our Founding Fathers and the colonies they represented aligned themselves against Great Britain, the mother country, but their relationship with each other was fractured and acrimonious. The initial government document they crafted, the Articles of Confederation, was a failure, and had to be replaced by the Constitution only thirteen years later. During that time, the new nation experienced Shay’s Rebellion, an uprising of Massachusetts farmers, which was ultimately put down by force.
The introduction of the Constitution did not cure this disunity. Only a few years after it became the law of the land, there was an uprising in western Pennsylvania over a distillery tax—the Whiskey Rebellion—which was put down by President Washington, who called in the militia.
The nascent government eventually began to stabilize, but it had not even fully begun to grapple with the issue that would divide the nation for the next eight decades: slavery. Pennsylvania passed a Gradual Emancipation Act in 1780, while Congress passed the first Fugitive Slave Law in 1793, thus setting the stage for the struggle between state and federal governments over the issue of human slavery that would dominate the first third of the nation’s history. Even as the US expanded significantly, adding territory through conquest and exploration in a way that suggests a strong degree of national unity, the question of slavery loomed large and soon became the central issue facing new territories as they sought incorporation into the union, would the new state be “slave” or “free?” Even as it grew, the country was sowing seeds of division that would blossom into the Civil War.
Not until the greatest bloodletting in American history and the nation’s first presidential assassination was the issue of slavery resolved. But—rather than creating a foundation for future unity—the period that followed, Reconstruction, saw the issue of slavery replaced by the issue of race. Race, of course, was central to the concept of slavery, so eliminating the institution did little, if anything, to change the perceptions of African-Americans held by many whites. Far from reintegrating the southern states into the union, Reconstruction resulted in the introduction of Jim Crow, the creation of a new legal class only a rung above slaves in the social hierarchy. Jim Crow, coupled with numerous anti-immigrant laws passed in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, contributed to the intentional disunity that characterized this period—but much of the discussion of this time period in history classrooms still focuses on manifest destiny and territorial expansion, often implicitly and explicitly portraying the era of the westward push as a time of national unity—regardless Native Americans might think about that.
The postbellum period also included the Industrial Revolution, the rise of the robber barons and their gilded age, and the assassination of two more presidents—all before the beginning of World War I. The women’s suffrage movement began in earnest. The Ku Klux Klan re-emerged as a powerful force in the South, and the tepid gains African-Americans had experienced during Reconstruction were reversed.
The United States stumbled into WWI unwillingly and only after numerous provocations. Despite victory and an idealistic president with a prudent plan for peace, the United States chose not to join the international body, the League of Nations, that Woodrow Wilson envisaged as a means of preventing war. Though the history books portray this choice as the result of foreign policy — which it was — we should note that the president campaigned in support of joining the League across the country, in the face of bitter Republican opposition in the Senate. The president’s campaign failed, however: the Senate voted against joining the League. Domestic disunity over the United States’ role in the world resulted in the US walking away from its own president’s creation.
The decade following WWI, the Roaring Twenties, was a period of economic growth. It was roaring primarily for those who were already soaring—and it created unsustainable inequality, which ultimately imploded into the Great Depression. This was also the period of Prohibition and the successful culmination of the decades-long fight for women’s suffrage.
If there truly is an era of American unity, it is the decades of the Depression, World War II and the brief postwar period. Perhaps nothing illustrates this more clearly than the four consecutive elections FDR won in 1932, 1936, 1940 and 1944. Perhaps the adage misery loves company applies here. It certainly didn’t hurt that — unlike during the Great Recession in 2008 — in the Great Depression, the wealthy suffered as well. As the nation began rebuilding itself, regaining its confidence and financial footing, the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor galvanized Americans around a common purpose and against a common enemy. The war created more opportunities for women and minorities and resulted in an economic boom that lasted into the 1950s. With the nation victorious and prosperous, this time period represents the acme of American unity.
But this unity was ephemeral. The unaddressed issues of race and gender soon re-surfaced. America experienced the Civil Rights movement and second wave feminism simultaneously, while in the throes of a divisive, unpopular and ultimately unsuccessful foreign war. A fourth president was assassinated and yet another resigned under a cloud of criminality.
From this emerged Ronald Reagan, a popular and charismatic leader whose presidency witnessed the beginning of the end of the Soviet Union and the Cold War. Presidents H. W. Bush and Clinton governed during a time of prosperity and perceived invincibility, and had to try to make sense of being the juggernaut in a unipolar world.
The next period of fracture—which is still on-going—began during the Clinton presidency, when the Republican party, perhaps too fully embracing the myth that we have reached the end of history, reneged on a commitment to governing and sowed the seeds of division from within. A nation that held together against an ideologically existential threat during the Cold War, while experiencing its own internal convulsions, found that it was more afraid of itself than of Soviet Communism. Republican politicians, lacking an enemy without, targeted an enemy within.
President Clinton’s impeachment is the first of America’s self-inflicted political wounds. The perceived unfairness of the 2000 election compounded the split between liberals and conservatives, but the September 11th attacks united the country, and the war in Afghanistan was popular and seen as legitimate. However, the resulting unity quickly evaporated. Even when it was launched in 2003, the Iraq War was contentious, and, as it unfolded within the context of the broader War on Terror, the American public became even more divided on how to conduct this new type of conflict, finding itself divided on, among other things, issues such as enhanced interrogation – or torture – the need for public safety vs the right to privacy, and the role of the media and leakers in framing public discourse.
In 2008, President Obama’s election inspired hope among much of the country. Perhaps he could have helped bridge some of America’s foundational divides—but he was never given the chance. Republicans dusted off their playbook from the Clinton years, and committed to what amounted to a political scorched earth strategy in their willingness to do anything to deny Obama another electoral victory, no matter the cost to the American people or to the bedrock of our political system.
Sadly, it seems that the Republican tactics worked. Right-wing media ecosystems serve as echo chambers for conspiratorial and extremist views lent credence by Donald Trump, arguably the most divisive president in American history—a man who stooped to condoning meddling in the election by a hostile foreign power. Social media has exacerbated the cracks, allowing for increasingly isolated bubbles, within which the most radical views fester. The 2016 election is one from which America may never fully heal, especially as the president’s wrongdoings become increasingly transparent—and since a debate over the legitimacy of the Supreme Court seems inevitable, once there is a ruling on a high-profile case.
Like so many, I wish for a country that is willing and able to address its past and whose citizens can find a way forward together in the future. But, in order to build unity, we must first acknowledge that there is no historical template for it. In the past, American greatness was reserved for the few. For the most part, it still is. Those who see Black Lives Matter, for example, as divisive, are missing the point. If there had been unity, there would be no need to call attention to the lack of equity. The BLM movement doesn’t exist to create disunity: it exists to demand unity for the first time ever.
Until Americans grasp these deeper historical truths and stop wishing for the return of something we’ve never had, we’re never going to find what we claim to be looking for: unity and togetherness. America represents the aspirational ideal of common purpose and inclusive bonds. We can live up to that ideal in the future, but not by repeating the failures of the past.