There had to have been a speech… a provocative windup to deliver the line that should be etched on Charlton Heston’s tombstone: “From my cold, dead hands!” he bellowed from the rostrum, then drowning in adulation from thousands of NRA faithful. They went wild, drunk with righteous indignation—perhaps much the same flavor of swoon that rippled through Grant Park on the evening of November 4, 2008, when the freshman senator from Illinois was elected President of the United States. Each group was right. Each had history on its side. Each was sure to prevail in the always nebulous “long run.”
But then what happened? Well, the answer—as always—was everything else. The things held so dear were vivisected, opened and displayed with gore and viscera for all to see. What was really important, what we were willing to compromise on, and what we were willing to overlook—all of these equating some signifier of purity. Together, these form the depths of ideology and the truths that we, as individuals, hold to be self-evident.
The poet Mike Tyson once said—as you’ve heard on ESPN and in every other HBS case prompt—“everybody has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.” So it goes with ideology. We cling to ours until its cost is too great. And so it’s been, for 200-some-odd years (of course with a notable detour in the middle 19th century), that we’ve kept the peace in this fair country of ours. With the exception of 1861-1865, in all our bouts of principle, the dearest costs that we’ve been willing to impose on the other side are embarrassment, debauch, and public relations villainy. And in that temperate middle ground, the gift of forbearance has found the United States the richest, most generally prosperous nation on earth.
Now consider that, despite your opinion of the man, Barack Obama’s life story—son of a Kenyan immigrant and Kansan mother, raised in Indonesia and Hawaii, summiting the highest mountain in politics—is uniquely American. His rise to the presidency is a story born as much of personal will as it is of structure and society, but the principle of forbearance—that we not assume the worst in our adversaries or the best in ourselves—is equally responsible. In the best circumstances—or perhaps somewhere reasonably short of the worst—one doesn’t rise to the height of power by declaring half the world his enemy.
Yet here we are. One of my favorite, oft-repeated jokes on Reddit is that “this is the darkest timeline.” I know plenty of people from high school days who’d say, “you’re just mad because you’re losing.” Of course, there’s some truth in that—the unavoidable resignation that comes from controlling exactly none of the three co-equal branches of government. But then again, why be surprised? No less a man than Woodrow Wilson, the world-making liberal Democrat who pledged to “make the world safe for democracy” once admitted that “[it] is only once in a generation that people can be lifted above material things… That is why conservative government is in the saddle two-thirds of the time.” There should be some comfort in such an assertion. Yet in 2018, it eludes many of us. The smallest, most incidental cultural relics serve as outposts of our dueling civilizations—the pair of which are bound in mortal combat for the soul of these United States. The struggles seem no longer for a few inches of real estate, but instead for the holy cities—the shrines of our ideologies. So as with the crusades, gone is any pretense of civility.
Predictably, the 2016 election elicited a wave of soul-searching, especially among those termed “coastal elites.” Were we really so monolithic and out of touch with the heartland? Had we lost track of a truer, more foundational American identity that existed in the “flyover” states between California and New York? Perhaps we had.
Eighteen months later, the hand-wringing continues. Yes, we go to down-home oracles like JD Vance and Nancy Isenberg to explain the pathologies of rural white poverty and disaffection. But in doing so, I wonder if we miss what’s right in front of us… That Cassius was wrong. “The fault, dear Brutus,” he said, “is not in our stars, but in ourselves.” Maybe our desperate attempt to square the circle—to make down of up and left of right—is not a quest for truth, but rather a prescription in search of illness, a myth around which we’ve built savage, contradictory religions.
A 2017 study by Deep Root Analytics suggested that even when asked about the most polarizing hallmarks of our politics, Americans of different backgrounds generally have more in common than most are willing to believe. Are we all the same? No, of course not. But even now, we’re more alike than different. Yet the story of 2018, 2016, and all those slippery election years since enterprising campaigners realized it was easier to raise money for a clash of civilizations than for nuanced policy debate, is the loss of forbearance—the loss of the belief that even those across the aisle are acting in good faith.
Yet again, here we are. The tail wags the dog. Every decision you make is your ideology. If you eat a beet salad and drink white wine, you’re a radical leftist ideologue. If you prefer bud light and a hot dog, you’re a racist idiot. To read Adam Wren’s latest piece in Politico Magazine, you could almost believe that’s what America boils down to—Whole Foods hipsters versus Main Street hicks. Mr. Wren is wrong. As is every other “journalist” who tells you Trump voters are monolithic, that black women always vote democrat, or that our respective bubbles are impermeable.
Yes, we’re offspring of myriad American cultures, but we’re more than the street we grew up on or the food that we eat. Neither the New York banker nor the Midwestern laborer are parodies—no matter how much our preachers and politicians wish them to be.
In another age of unreason, albeit of a different making, Edward R. Murrow reminded us that “we will not be driven by fear… if we dig deep in our history and our doctrine, and remember we are not descended from fearful men.” Nearly 400 years earlier, an English playwright told us that “all the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players.”
Each is profound and true in its own way, but in 2018, our greatest challenge is to hold fast the difference.