Less Pluribus, More Unum
April 9, 2020, Less Pluribus, More Unum: How Can We Form a More Perfect Union in Our Fractious Age? Time for Straight Talk about the Prospects for Finding Common Ground.
This essay is predicated on a quest and a question. The quest involves the noble but difficult prospects in our democracy of finding common ground for the common good. The question is whether “We the People” are any longer capable of fulfilling the charge in our Constitution to “form a more perfect Union.”
In these hyper-partisan times, we must never forget that what unites us as human beings and as Americans is far more important than what divides us as Democrats and Republicans. But do we really believe that anymore? We certainly don’t act like it. The words we use to describe our feelings toward “the other” are pretty disturbing, and they don’t just have to do with race, ethnicity, or gender. Words like “hate,” “contempt,” and “scorn” also describe what people feel toward those who think and vote differently from the way they do. If people are Trump supporters, if their basic operating system is conservative, then, alas, many of them hate progressives. If people are Sanders supporters, if their basic operating system is progressive, then, unfortunately, many of them hate conservatives. That’s as fundamental a divide as any. Surveys show that about 30 percent of Americans self-identify with the right, and about 30 percent with the left. If true, then the majority of Americans—60 percent—feel a visceral dislike toward a lot of fellow Americans. Given that level of dislike, I ask three questions.
First, where does this hatred toward fellow Americans come from? Perhaps if we diagnose the origins of the disease, we can find a palliative, if not the cure, to deal with the symptoms. It turns out our nation’s founders understood the sources of hatred and recommended some good ways to reduce the severity of our civic malady.
Second, how’s this supposed to work, this radical experiment in democracy, if we presume that half our fellow Americans are so evil we shouldn’t even talk with them? Democracy is made for talkers—even with people we don’t like. It requires institutions that encourage us to assemble and talk—a poignant reminder as we endure the coronavirus pandemic with its social distancing and psychological alienation.
Third, what is the prospect that our nation’s fragile consensus during the COVID-19 pandemic will carry forward, after the medical problem is solved? Odds are, it won’t. As the nation’s physical health returns, as its economic strength resumes, so will its tribal hatreds resurface. Hatred is the virus that has weakened our civic sinews for a long time now. Hatred is the spiritual pandemic we must fight. Because, in the long run, hatred will do a lot more damage to our nation than the coronavirus ever will.
Human Nature Must Navigate Difficult Existential Polarities.
What is the remote cause of the hate many Americans feel toward one another? Simply put, it’s the “human condition.” Every American citizen and every immigrant, by virtue of their humanity, has the capacity to dislike others. It’s just the way it is.
Ethologists who study the higher primates have discovered that bonobos are more likely to solve their conflicts peaceably than, say, chimpanzees. Chimps can be vicious to each other and to other species. Whereas bonobos prefer to groom and play with monkeys, chimps will hunt them. Chimps also practice infanticide, lethal invasion, and cannibalism.
Although we human beings share almost 99 percent of our DNA with bonobos and chimpanzees, we are infinitely more complex. If we look into humankind’s earliest history, read the ancient world’s oldest literature, and explore the Axial Age’s most sacred religious texts, we find that human beings have always been conscious of living amid polarities that are both difficult and existential. Difficult because, without choosing to, we must operate between such polar opposites as love-and-hate, life-and-death, good-and-evil, freedom-and-necessity. Existential because these polarities are givens; they are in the nature of things. As human beings, we only have the power to navigate between the poles, not abolish them. Between the polar opposites is the space we humans are given to inhabit. We know not why. But it is where we write the human story, sometimes as tragedy, other times as comedy, always with quandaries and moral dilemmas.
Love-and-hate is a primary polarity that subsumes secondary polarities. One of them is connectedness-and-separateness. On the one hand, we know that all human beings are one. Genome sequencing proves it. No matter how striking our differences, the greatest and least among us share more in common than we do with the next closest species. When Aristotle studied what makes us human, he argued that the thing we share is the logos: the capacity to reason and communicate logically. When Thomas Jefferson wrote that “all men are created equal,” he tapped into the intuitive understanding that all people are equal in their possession of natural rights. When H. G. Wells wrote The War of the Worlds, he relied on sentiments of solidarity to make the storyline work. Recent events show that feelings of connectedness have been reinforced by the coronavirus pandemic. It is necessary that we collectively hate this virus. Since COVID-19 is no respecter of nations, races, or ethnicities, no less a biological unit than Homo sapiens has been mustered to fight a world war to the finish.
On the other hand, we know that human beings are tribal—we separate into the “little platoons” that give our lives meaning. I cherish my family, my church, and my community. I treasure my civic associations and the land of my birth. I take pride in my ancestry and my team. I tear up when I sing the “Star Spangled Banner.” These are all healthy attachments that define my social identity. But carried to the extreme, divorced from the pull of solidarity, such attitudes can sort us into exclusive tribes. We start viewing people in terms of whether they are members of the in-group or the out-group. We sacralize our identity—make it off limits even when it impacts public policy. From such thinking it is a small step to dislike or even hate the other. Surveys in the U.S. show that lots of Democrats and Republicans have unfortunately taken that step.
Another polarity subsumed by love-and-hate is group preservation-and-self preservation. Because there are outside forces that can destroy us, we developed a social instinct to cooperate with our neighbors to improve our shared chances of survival. To survive a pandemic requires that we seek common ground for the common good. Group preservation occurs when we think less about ourselves and do more for our neighbors. Think of the farmers in a barn raising, or the Red Cross volunteers after a natural disaster. That is the way of progress.
The opposite pole is self preservation, also implanted by nature for our survival. Self preservation can easily become disordered. When we become more absorbed with ourselves than self preservation requires; when we don’t care about our neighbor; when we seek our private good at the expense of our neighbor and the common good; then we have turned the instinct of self preservation into bald selfishness. The group suffers and ultimately we do, too. That is the way of regress.
Since disordered selfishness is a constant temptation, we must learn to channel it as best we can into social purposes: to practice the Golden Rule; to do well by doing good; to love thy neighbor as thyself, as a famous rabbi once urged. Thinkers of the Scottish Enlightenment counseled people to pursue their own happiness by all means—consonant with the happiness of mankind. Only “enlightened self-interest” or “self-interest properly understood” could reconcile the polar opposites of the selfish instinct and the social instinct so that we could find enough common ground to live together.
There have been many parables to describe this existential war within us between love and hate. Christians and Jews describe how God’s good creation was corrupted by sin. Natural law theorists see Locke emphasizing our social instincts and Hobbes our selfish instincts. Freudians put it in terms of the superego battling the ego. Star Wars aficionados see the leaders of the Galactic Republic warring against those of the Evil Empire. Whatever parable we live by, we Americans must somehow dial back the hatred and call on the better angels of our nature.
How Historical Developments in Europe Prepared the Way for Modern Diversity.
Since the United States was settled by diverse peoples bearing tribal hatreds from Europe, the American experiment could easily have been smothered in the crib. What kept us from descending into a Hobbesian war of all against all? After all, the existential polarity that pulls us toward human solidarity on the one hand, and pushes us into tribal attachments on the other, can in no way be solved. Polarities just are. Tribalism is an inevitable fact of human nature, just as gravity is an inevitable fact of physical nature.
Although tribalism cannot be solved, it can be channeled, managed, leveraged. Indeed, the solidarity-tribal polarity in human nature has been softened by three historical developments: (1) the diversity that characterized early modern Europe, (2) the culture that characterized early modern America, and (3) the institutions our founders established. All three factors would fortuitously combine in the U.S. to aid Americans’ search for common ground when they had the will to do so.
Our nation’s European origins baked diversity into the American melting pot. Historically most civilizations have been controlled by hegemonic empires that enforced unity and did not tolerate rival civilizational paradigms—at least, not near its core. Egypt, Persia, India, China, and Byzantium illustrate how the marriage of the state and religion worked to stifle dissent and experimentation. Kings and priests were inseparable.
Western civilization was different. Unusual among the world’s civilizations, Europe after 476 CE never experienced a single nation dominating all the others. No single monarch ever ruled the continent. None had since the fall of Rome in the West. Charlemagne, Napoleon, Hitler—all tried but failed to corral Europe into one great empire. Moreover, even at the core of Christendom, church and state were often competitors rather than mutually reinforcing. So authority in Western Europe was dispersed. In some locales, the church had more power than the state. In others, the state had more power than the church. In some regions the prince had more power than the towns. In others, the towns had more power than the prince. France had its unified monarch. Italy had its republican communes. Germany had its scores of kingdoms, princedoms, and duchies. The variety was astonishing, on a scale unlike anything else in the world.
As a result of these different polities, all competing with each other, Europe became a laboratory of extraordinarily diverse religious, philosophical, social, political, and economic experiments. Risk takers and boundary transgressors could get away with challenging the status quo to a degree unthinkable elsewhere. If rebels felt threatened in one princedom, they could flee to another. Think, for example, of the most famous Reformation cleric, Martin Luther, or the most famous Enlightenment writer, Voltaire. Both took aim at the status quo. When subsequently threatened, they fled their home and found refuge with a more accommodating prince.
We cannot quit this review of Europe’s development without mentioning some of its greatest risk takers of all: Christian humanists. Christian humanists came in all varieties but what united them was their mastery of a stunning variety of source documents and ideas that had circulated since antiquity. It is no exaggeration that their scholarship helped shape the liberality of Western thought. Page after page of European intellectual history tells of how the Christian humanists set out on an improbable quest: to perfect the reconciliation between pagan Athens with Christian Rome. Their quest to reconcile rival ideas, movements, and civilizational paradigms was radical for its time—and no less dangerous than had they set out in search of the Holy Grail. Among the dangers the Christian humanists faced were censure and trashing of their reputation. Thomas Aquinas was one such pioneering humanist. He dared greatly when he wrote summas that challenged the status quo in his church. He dared to build civilizational bridges from Peter and Paul’s Rome to Aristotle’s Athens. Even after his death his work was viewed askance by the church hierarchy, but eventually it was adopted and it established rigorous methods for finding common ground between seemingly polar civilizational systems.
The Renaissance, the great age of Christian humanism, was a happier time for civilizational bridge building. One of the greatest humanists was Marsilio Ficino, the philosopher-priest whose Florentine Academy reconciled Plato with Paul. Ficino’s quest brought to the surface what was always latent in Christendom and feared by many. He and fellow Renaissance humanists permanently changed the character of the West by legitimizing a civilizational authority that rivaled the authority of the church. Henceforward, pagan heroes were esteemed almost as highly as Christian saints. Caesar Augustus almost equalled Augustine of Hippo. Cicero almost equaled Bede. Laboring to build strong bridges between these rival authorities, the Christian humanists made respectable the quest to seek common ground with the “other.” Keep in mind, most all this Renaissance bridge building originated with Catholic priests.
Like the Renaissance, the Reformation had a incalculable impact on civilizational authority in the West. Leading Protestant reformers, rigorously trained in the source methods of Christian humanism, came to the conclusion that Rome had corrupted the original church. As a result, they were emboldened to raise up a profusion of rivals to Catholic Rome. Lutherans, Calvinists, Anabaptists, Anglicans, Unitarians—together they would change the historic trajectory of the West and America’s civic ecology with it. The Protestant reformers’ radical leap was merely a continuation of the step previously taken in the Renaissance, when humanists raised up a civilizational authority to rival that of Rome. The creation of strong civilizational rivalries, in essence, connected the Renaissance and Reformation. Throughout the early modern period, we see again and again how Europe’s elites launched revolutions that were at first resisted, then embraced.
We see that the legacy of Christian humanism is quite mixed. On the one hand, Renaissance scholars built bridges between pagan Athens and pagan Rome to Catholic Rome. On the other hand, Reformation scholars built bridges in all directions away from Catholic Rome. Even during the heyday of Christian humanism, we cannot escape many of the dilemmas found in the unity-and-diversity polarity.
The point of all these developments is this. Without intending to, Christendom evolved into the freest civilization on Earth. Out of the West’s liberality there would grow a tolerance for ambiguity: no one person, no single institution, no lone culture was seen as possessing apodeictic truth. Loyalties would have to be earned by persuasion—the predicate to finding common ground.
Modernity’s Three Sources of Civilizational Authority: Christianity, the Enlightenment, and Romanticism
The proliferation of boundary transgressions and social experiments in Western Europe from the High Middle Ages to the Renaissance and Reformation would have profound consequences. One of them was the eventual creation of a new culture: modernity. Unique among civilizations, the West gave rise to, and cultivated, multiple sources of civilizational authority at its core. Three very different operating systems—Christianity, the Enlightenment, and Romanticism—would eventually coexist and compete for the European mind. America came into the picture precisely when Europeans were bringing these three sources of authority across the Atlantic. By the late eighteenth century, our nation was on track to become the first great modern nation, an extremely diverse one at that.
The dominant operating system in the early American mind was Protestant Christianity with its many competing churches (from 1517 on). The source of its authority was faith that Jesus was who the Gospels said He was. After Protestants started breaking violently with the Roman Catholic Church, initiating the Reformation, the adherents of the rival churches developed a hatred for one another. Religious wars erupted between Catholics and Protestants. Religious wars also erupted between the various Protestant denominations. Whereas Christianity tended to be a source of civilizational unity in the Middle Ages, the religion became a source of civilizational division in early modern times. Each denomination marked itself off from the others by developing its own theological mix when it came to such contentious topics as the nature of Jesus, predestination, free will, baptism, communion, church governance, who is saved, who is damned, and evangelizing the culture. Sectarian wars notwithstanding, Christians who left Europe and came to America did recognize their common spiritual and moral orientation. Their shared legacy informed public deliberations. When Tocqueville traveled through America in the early 1830s, he observed that a broad Protestant consensus existed in the U.S. and that it was one of the glues that held the nation together.
Almost equal in influence to Protestantism in these early years, especially among the well educated, was the operating system known as the Enlightenment (after 1637). Its sources of authority were natural law, natural reason, and science. The Enlightenment arose in reaction to generations of demoralizing wars of religion ravaging Europe. No greater absurdity could be conjured than that of Christians killing Christians over who had the better confession of faith. The men and women of the Enlightenment were convinced that there had to be a better way. They increasingly put their trust in science, yet their movement was hardly uniform. The Enlightenment came to America’s shores from various European sources, mostly in Scotland, England, and France. Its preoccupations were familiar to the founding generation: rational discourse, peaceful coexistence, civilizational progress, the symmetrical beauty of nature, and the mechanical weights and counterweights in a constitution. It rejected priestcraft, magic, and superstition.
The operating system that arrived late (after 1750) in the Thirteen Colonies was Romanticism. Its source of authority was grounded in the individual’s intuition, emotions, and mystical insights. Romanticism would exert a powerful influence on the early American mind. Its origins in the counter-Enlightenment reveal its obsessions: majestic mountains, violent seas, sublime icebergs, the lone artist, the heroic individual, the great leader, the Middle Ages, Catholic revival, monsters, and misfits. Romantics sought out the unique origins of each nation in the mists of antiquity. They cultivated the gift of seeing the mystery of ordinary things. They were drawn to the wild nature of the noble savage on the frontier in the new world, and equally to the ruins, cemeteries, death, disease, and decadence in the old. The fall of Rome particularly intrigued the Romantics, evidenced by the popularity of Edward Gibbon’s 1776 book on the subject. America is not Rome, of course, but the Romantics thought it was. One of America’s most surprising Romantics turned out to be the older John Adams, whose brooding personality made him pessimistic about America’s prospects. The Romantic sensibility can also be detected in Franklin’s riposte to the woman who called out, as he was leaving the Constitutional Convention for the last time, “Doctor, what have we got, a republic or a monarchy?” To which he supposedly answered, “A republic, if you can keep it.”
The adherents of these different operating systems initially tended to segregate themselves, often seeking out the colony or city or region most congenial to their beliefs. Thus Puritans congregated in Massachusetts, Anglicans in Virginia, Catholics in Maryland, Dissenters in Rhode Island, and Quakers in Pennsylvania. Scientific thinkers of the Enlightenment—Benjamin Franklin and Benjamin Rush, for example—migrated to Philadelphia where the American Philosophical Society and other academies of learning were located. Romantics such as members of the Hudson River School sought out the Adirondacks and sea coasts and wild frontiers of North America.
The frontier with its vast spaces tended to dilute any sectarian attachments that kept the three operating systems segregated. As Americans became more mobile, much social mixing and intellectual syncretizing occurred. As time passed, most of the elite in the Middle West and on the East Coast saw no incompatibility in attending church, hearing lectures about the latest scientific advances, and viewing paintings of the fall of Rome. Many Americans were thus defining what it was to be modern. They held the three poles—Christian faith, Enlightenment reason, and Romantic feeling—in a workable tension with one another. It gave the American mind a common spiritual and moral framework in which to think about most issues.
But not all issues. Any consensus building in early America was on behalf of a minority of the population: white, Protestant, property-owning males. The majority of the people were left out or left behind. Yet if all human beings were equal in the possession of their natural rights, as Jefferson had argued, then a reckoning would have to come. It took a long time to extend the “blessings of liberty” to African Americans, Native Americans, women, Catholics, Jews, Muslims, and immigrants originating outside of northwestern Europe. It was hard work to which the majority of white, Protestant, property-owning males had to give their consent if not their blessing. It is the glory of our nation that the circle of “the other” steadily shrank. In significant areas of our national life, we have staked out common ground with increasingly diverse peoples. We have made progress. The American people continue to have the public resolve to fight for more and more of our fellow citizens to reach their potential through our political, legal, economic, and social institutions.
Consensus and Partisanship in the American Experience
Already we see in the founding of America the bold contours of modernity, with its tolerance for a proliferating variety of beliefs. It is often said that America is a Christian nation, and for the most part it surely is. Such founders as Patrick Henry, John Jay, and John Witherspoon were devout Protestants, and Charles Carroll was a devout Catholic. But many of our nation’s founders leaned away from doctrinal Christianity and toward the Enlightenment. They accepted Christianity’s moral precepts and social norms but rejected what Christianity had become during the wars of religion. They had read about decades of sectarian violence back in Europe and it turned them off. Thomas Paine was virulently anti-Christian. Thomas Jefferson and James Madison were Deists who rejected the passages in the Bible that reported supernatural miracles. Benjamin Franklin for most of his life alternated between Deism and a nonsectarian Theism. John Adams was not a Trinitarian but a Unitarian; he also was quite anti-Catholic. And George Washington, nominally Episcopalian but sphinx-like about his real beliefs, spoke in the Enlightenment manner of “Providence” and “Nature’s God” while avoiding direct references to Jesus Christ and the Bible’s supernatural miracles. In all their variety of beliefs, the founding generation established a modern ethos when it came to public proclamations of apodeictic truth. They tolerated strong differences with each other, evidenced by their ability to come together to sign the Declaration of Independence and ratify the U.S. Constitution. In their public intercourse are enduring lessons that can aid us in the search for common ground.
One of those lessons happens to be the founders’ most overlooked achievement—the rhetorical revolution. Autocracies require subjects to listen. Democracies need citizens to speak. We are a rhetorical republic. The perennial charge by the founders to posterity, expressed in the Preamble of the Constitution, is “to form a more perfect Union.” That can only be done by communicating the consent of the governed. To arrive at that consent is a messy process. It requires citizens to assemble, speak up, listen in good faith to what others are saying, examine the evidence, cross-examine the witnesses, deliberate on the merits of the arguments, debate good ends and apt means, convince others, settle on the best candidates, go to the polls, then hold elected officials accountable. At every stage, the way to self-governance goes through rhetoric. Any hope of finding common ground for the common good goes through rhetoric.
A rhetorical republic relies on equality of citizenship—citizens without masters. As Sam Houston liked to say, “I bow to God and there the list ends.”
A rhetorical republic also relies on strong institutions. The founders established institutions with built-in safety valves to deal with corrosive selfishness, divisive tribalism, and other vices that bring about separation. Politically they designed the Constitution to channel disagreement into productive debate about the common good. Economically they adopted the free market to admit anyone into the marketplace who wants to build a better mousetrap; the free market also gives people wide latitude to pursue their happiness, thereby dissipating envy. Socially they abolished aristocracy so as to make unlimited upward mobility possible, even for the humblest citizen, which also dissipated envy. And in matters of faith they gave religions a leash long enough to move throughout society, but short enough to stay on the perimeter of the state. In all these ways, social frictions were lubricated. For a long time, civil war was held at bay.
Given our rhetorical republic, it is little wonder that America has endured periods of hyper-partisanship. Given our institutions, it is no surprise that America has enjoyed periods of consensus. Students attuned to the patterns of American history know that the nation’s public life consists mostly of long stretches of time spent navigating the tense field between the pole of consensus and the pole of partisanship.
In nineteenth-century America, the seedbed of consensus was prepared by a great many Americans reading their King James Bible, Webster’s Blue Back Speller, and (later) McGuffey Readers. The Anglo-American Protestants who were churched and read these works generally shared a religious, moral, and political outlook that expressed a sense of national purpose and desire for unity. The Era of Good Feelings, when the Federalist Party faded away and the Democratic Republicans consolidated, illustrates.
Surprise attacks from foreign enemies have always had a way of getting Americans to rally around the flag and support the sitting President, regardless of party. Even before the last bomb dropped on Pearl Harbor, even before the last hijacked plane careened into its 9/11 target, Americans felt united in their horror and their resolve to strike back at the enemy.
Consensus marked a few but by no means all of our wars. The totalitarian threats to our nation in the twentieth century generated feelings of unity during and after World War II. By contrast, there was little common ground on the home front in the War of 1812 and Mexican War because large numbers of people thought they were unjust conflicts contrary to their material interests. In more recent times, as wars in Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq wore on, the nation wore out. We lost the will to fight. What began as wars of consensus ended as wars of contentiousness.
As these latter conflicts suggest, wars can be both the cause and effect of hyper-partisanship. Exhibit “A” in American history is our Civil War—and don’t forget the strife during the decades before and after our American Iliad. They were no picnic. Bleeding Kansas was as disturbing before the war as radical Reconstruction was after it.
War or no war, discovering common ground in the U.S. has never been easy. We have been a diverse, opinionated people from the start. Indeed, paralyzing strife goes all the way back to the beginning, to the Washington administration when Jefferson and his Democratic-Republicans set their faces against Hamilton and his Federalists. No wonder our first President admonished posterity not to become too fond of political parties.
Even when public life excluded pretty much all but white, Protestant, property-owning males, the first hundred years after ratification of the Constitution saw a mare’s nest of potential conflict: Christians against Deists, Catholics against Protestants, English speakers against German speakers, slavers against abolitionists, agrarian republicans against commercial republicans, the Enlightenment mind against the Romantic mind, sectionalists against nationalists, nativists against immigrants, drinkers against prohibitionists, isolationists against imperialists, rural farmers against the urban proletariat, and on and on and on—all grist for partisan mills. Somehow our ancestors made most of it work most of the time.
Despite these contending factions, it was perhaps easier to find common ground in the nineteenth century, when the range of acceptable public choices was more limited than it is today, when we welcome the “mystery clause” into our public discourse. For many decades after its founding, “Americanism” was the system that characterized the nation’s glue and its ethos. It was a loose association of the governing policies of Alexander Hamilton, Henry Clay, and Grover Cleveland, and it was the paradigm that a majority of Americans supported. As an economic and political program, it enjoyed a large public consensus for most of the nineteenth century. It was not so much a rigid ideology as a muscular ethos. It valued self-reliance. It cherished the opportunities that civil society afforded individuals in their pursuit of happiness. It balanced strict and loose constructions of the Constitution, favored mostly free markets (railroad subsidies and tariffs being notable exceptions), and urged restraint by the national government so as not to expand Washington’s power at the expense of the states. It was a mashup of nineteenth-century “conservative liberalism,” or “liberal conservatism.” As George Will put it, Americans tend to be symbolically and temperamentally conservative but operationally liberal. The boosters of Americanism went to church. They were not ashamed of being rural. They tended to their civic duties. They did not want barriers to entering the marketplace. They didn’t mind that the national government was far away. Even in their fractiousness, most people in the nineteenth century stayed within the bounds of Americanism.
From the 1890s on, however, Americanism increasingly clashed with a new paradigm that was asserting itself, Progressivism. These two -isms—Americanism and Progressivism—would frame public debate for the next 130 years and show us why consensus has been so difficult to achieve. Progressive ideas gained a purchase on the American imagination during the Panic of 1893 whose effects on ordinary men and women were arguably worse than those of the Great Depression four decades later. In response, Populists on their farms and laborers in their cities called for government action to provide work and relieve suffering. Thus would Progressive ideas undermine old-fashioned “Americanism” with its emphasis on self-reliance.
The new -ism was championed by the philosopher John Dewey, the pamphleteer Herbert Croly, and the politician Robert LaFollette. Over time the ideological teeth of twentieth-century Progressivism would shred the muscular ethos of nineteenth-century Americanism. Progressive ideas and policies made sense to many people in an America that was no longer like the America of the founders, but was industrializing, urbanizing, and modernizing. The Progressive adaptation to modernization helped elect Republicans and Democrats from Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson to Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson. Progressives in both parties would spearhead unprecedented changes, bringing about a revolution by evolution. It went by different names: the New Nationalism, New Freedom, New Deal, Great Society. But the goal was unmistakable: to supplant the founders’ republic with the progressives’ democracy.
Nowadays the Progressive agenda is vigorously pushed by such left-leaning Democrats and Social Democrats as Elizabeth Warren, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and Bernie Sanders. Meanwhile, Americanism in the first half of the twentieth century morphed into conservatism. Its defenders today are found mostly among Republicans like Rand Paul, Ben Sasse, and Josh Hawley, as well as Libertarians like William Weld.
Conservatives and progressives have battled each other in a rowdy arena for 13 decades now. Sometimes one side wins a round, sometimes the other. In the long run, they fight to a draw. Since the Great Depression some nine decades ago, Republicans have been in the White House 44 years, and Democrats 44 years. Congressional leadership has likewise switched back and forth several times. Although the progressive Franklin Roosevelt prevailed in the 1930s and 1940s, and the conservative Ronald Reagan prevailed in the 1980s, no one party or ideology has entirely dominated Washington within living memory. Sometimes the spirit of innovation has held sway, sometimes the spirit of conservation. In the field of tension between the poles of innovation and conservation, party leaders have often been able to forge common ground on matters of great national interest.
On the subject of political leaders, I should add that when I invite speakers to the Hauenstein Center, I remind them that they are coming to Ford country. First in the Congress and then in the White House, Gerald R. Ford mastered the practice of working with people whose views differed from his own. How did he raise the social instinct to an art? First, he respected the dignity of others even when it wasn’t easy to do. He listened to them carefully. He kept an open mind. He agreed with their good points. He asserted himself slowly. As a result, Ford modeled how to disagree without being disagreeable. He taught that not everyone who disagreed with him was an enemy. He was not debating enemies so much as opponents who were actual or potential friends. He also taught us that not all debates end in hugs. You cannot abandon your principles just to feel good. You seek common ground when you can; you stand your ground when you must.
The Diagnosis of Our Current Time of Troubles
Gerald Ford’s America, for the most part, is long gone. Are we the people better off now than we were during America’s bicentennial celebrations more than four decades ago? Part of the answer depends on how we balance the unity-and-diversity polarity.
The Catholic philosopher John Courtney Murray, in his best-read book, We Hold These Truths, asked: “How much pluralism and what kinds of pluralism can a pluralist society stand? And, conversely, how much unity and what kind of unity does a pluralist society need in order to be a society at all?”
Reflecting on Murray’s questions—which were also considered by Hamilton, Madison, Tocqueville, and Mill—political philosopher Kenneth L. Grasso offers a penetrating diagnosis of our current time of troubles. It is worth quoting at length:
The United States has always been a pluralistic society. It was, after all, formed by the union of the original thirteen colonies (hence the phrase e pluribus unum on the Great Seal of the United States). When Alexis de Tocqueville visited in the early 1830s, he was struck by America’s size and diversity. The United States, he observed in Democracy in America, was a large and highly populated nation encompassing a vast and ever-expanding territory including “a great variety of soils and climates and a great variety of crops.” Nor was America’s pluralism limited to the resultant diversity of economic interests. Not only was the America he visited divided into 24 states each with its own political identities and interests, but it was also divided into distinct regions with somewhat different cultures and divergent concerns and interests. This doesn’t even take into account the self-governing towns and counties and the intense loyalties they generated. Likewise, there was the ethnic pluralism resulting from a vast and ongoing European immigration which had brought to America’s shores diverse peoples with “their [own] languages, religions and mores.” Finally, there was America’s legendary religious pluralism, the “innumerable multitude of sects” he found here.
Nevertheless, despite this pluralism and the tensions it necessarily involved, Tocqueville’s America cohered; it remained a stable and united society. It did so, Tocqueville maintained, because of the shared convictions, values, and mores that united its citizenry. “I will never admit,” he wrote, “that men form a society simply by recognizing the same leader and obeying the same laws; only when certain men consider a great many questions from the same point of view and have the same opinions on a great many subjects.” For a society to exist, he insisted, “and, with even more reason, for ... a society to prosper, all the minds of the citizens must always be brought and held together by some principal ideas.”
America could cohere, he maintained, because “from Maine to the Floridas, from Missouri to the Atlantic ocean,” he wrote, Americans agree both about “the general principles which should rule human societies” and the “moral opinions controlling the daily actions of life and the general lines of behavior.” They are united by a common body of “ideas, opinions,” and “habits,” by a consensus about the moral and political principles governing the structure of political life and specifying the content of the common good.
This consensus, in turn, was possible because of a broader agreement regarding the nature of man, the character of the human good, and the structure of social relations that should inform human life, and thus about the ultimate meaning and purpose of human existence. Americans could agree about the moral and political principles governing public life because they shared a common body of “religious” and “philosophical” ideas. America’s political unity, in short, presupposed an antecedent intellectual and moral unity.
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Here we arrive at one of the fundamental sources of our problems today: America has always been a pluralistic polity and our pluralism has expanded dramatically in the course of history. Despite our ever-increasingly pluralism, however, until fairly recently we’ve managed to maintain the kind of substantive public consensus—the kind of broad agreement on the nature of man, the human good, and the proper structure of human social relations—which we’re discussing here.
In Lincoln’s formulation, even during our civil war, we “read the same bible and pray[ed] to the same God.” Today, our pluralism has grown to the point where, as Francis Canavan observes ... “we are ceasing to agree even in basic respects on what man is and how he should live,” where morally and intellectually we can scarcely be considered one people.
Thus ... as the common body of cultural capital on which we have historically traded disappears, our political institutions have become increasingly dysfunctional. As for what the future holds, insofar as the prospects for reestablishing some type of substantive consensus any time in the foreseeable future seem slim, it seems likely we’re looking at dysfunction as far as the eye can see. And, that is not, to put it gently, a happy prospect.”
Grasso’s warning is clear. In the present climate of postmodernity, devoid as it is of a unifying world view, our society may face increasing dissolution, chaos, and anarchy.
What Comes Next?
What are we to make of the recent eruption of bipartisan behavior? Do the events of recent days hold out hope? Threatened by the coronavirus pandemic, politicians are once again reaching across the aisle and finding common ground in numbers not seen since 9/11. The strongest evidence of the new bipartisan spirit is the recent economic relief bill, which passed in the U.S. Senate 96-0. In the House, Rep. Liz Cheney admonished fellow lawmakers, “We have an obligation to understand ... that this is not partisan. We need to come together as Americans to do what’s right to defeat the virus....”
Let’s tip our hats to our leaders. From the President to the governors to a host of local officials, they are coming together to wage world war against the COVID-19 enemy. It is essential that they do so in the short term. But I am worried about the long term. I cannot imagine that many leaders who self-identify on either the left or the right have the desire, skills, or reserves of good will to work together after the present threat passes. What then?
The remote and proximate causes of our separation from one another are all too familiar: our fissive human nature, racism, tribal passions, the sacralization of identity. Are there more? Let us count the ways: the income gap, wage stagnation, outsourced jobs, opioid crisis, crisis of legitimacy, culture war, red-blue sorting, gerrymandering, welfare dependency, bureaucracy, congressional calendar, bad manners, cable TV, 24-7 news cycle, social media, anonymity of trolling, business models based on clickbait, endless wars, domestic unrest, pornography, selfishness, national debt, personal debt, demographic suicide, loneliness, psychological alienation, unmanaged anger, untreated depression, and on and on and on.
Good Lord, it’s exhausting.
But don’t forget, above all, the main thing: the postmodern collapse of meaning. Since the late 1960s, the damage caused by neglecting the rigorously ordered search for meaning has been incalculable. For it has resulted in the enervating emptiness felt by so many. It did not used to be this way. From the founding generation to the greatest generation, Americans sought meaning in one or more of the three operating systems that informed Western civilization: Judeo-Christianity, the Enlightenment, and Romanticism. The productive tension among those three operating systems defined the modern age. Three radically different world views—yet we moderns kept them suspended in a three-way polarity.
By virtue of their liberal education, earlier generations of Americans integrated the three. Not perfectly, but functionally enough. In a single day they could attend church to worship their God, read a magazine that reinforced their faith in science, and take a drive to lose themselves in the breathtaking panoramas of a national park. The tension within that three-way polarity produced not only relatively integrated human beings, but an unprecedented civilization, a civilization that was characterized by can-do optimism, pathbreaking ideas, boundless energy, revolutionary technologies, and relentless material transformation.
The United States of America was surely the most remarkable product of the modern age. Never before had a nation from its very start offered so many people so many paths to the pursuit of happiness. The possibilities of material and spiritual enrichment were unprecedented in world history.
But modernity was not an unalloyed success. Its many shortfalls were glaringly apparent. Our democracy was slow to respond to the injustice of racism. Our politics kept tearing us apart. Too many people were left behind. Too many leaders did not possess the ethical wherewithal to deal wisely with technological change. Too many souls despaired of the “progressive disenchantment of the world.” Our cities reflected the ugliness of a utilitarian calculus. Our suburbs grew too fast. Our industries spewed too much pollution. Our consumer society generated too much garbage.
Clearly, modern America was a work in progress. But is postmodern America in regress?
It’s no use pining for modernity. It could not go on forever. Holding the three world views in dynamic tension proved too much over the long haul. Nietzsche was the first to see it. He intuited that when modernity’s blazing sun set, postmodernity’s pale moon would rise. The descent of darkness would dim all our Big Faiths—in our religions’ spiritual power, in the Enlightenment’s confidence in reason, and in the Romantic’s reverie over the mystery of ordinary things.
Now we have only little faiths, and we are the poorer for it. Inquiry is increasingly—often exclusively—preoccupied with power and identity. Never has Max Weber’s call for the re-enchantment of the world been more needful. Until we again feel the stirrings of Big Faiths, until we again are enchanted, we shall experience circumspection, separation, and alienation from one another—not exactly the feelings we associate with common ground.
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Gleaves Whitney is director of the Hauenstein Center for Presidential Studies at Grand Valley State University.
 I use the term, “sacralization of identity,” in the sense that Eric Kaufmann does. See, for example, https://lawliberty.org/book-review/who-polarized-us/?utm_source=LAL+Updates&utm_campaign=1297d5bcf5-LAL_Daily_Updates&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_53ee3e1605-1297d5bcf5-72423453