A house divided against itself cannot stand. – Abraham Lincoln
A curious phenomenon has emerged in the immediate aftermath of the Brett Kavanaugh confirmation, which is that both sides of the political spectrum have finally agreed on something: They’ve agreed that the process was absolutely bruising and may have left lasting wounds that will take a long time to heal. They’ve agreed that the process has revealed the depth of our partisan divides, a deep-seated tribalism that seems to have shaken up our faith in our institutions of government, and in our society itself. In an article from the Washington Post, many prominent Republicans and Democrats discuss the immediate and long-lasting damage, all with the same tone of pessimism and depression.
This might seem bizarre at first. Despite many fronts, at its core, the Kavanaugh confirmation conflict was a battle between the left and right wings of American politics. At the end, the right wing emerged victorious. One would think, then, that the right would be elated and the left would be depressed. But, that’s not what we’re seeing.
Indeed, that’s not what we’ve been seeing for some time now. There was an article in the New York Times last week that said that people on all sides of the political spectrum are feeling like “strangers in their own country.” In the article, Columbia University historian Stephanie McCurry says, “Normally, even in a politically polarized society, one side wins and they’re content. It’s the other side that feels shut out of power.” And yet, New York Times polling has shown that:
Forty-seven percent of voters who approve of Mr. Trump say they feel like strangers in their own country, while 44 percent of those who disapprove of him say the same. Nearly half of women feel this way. About 60 percent of African-Americans and Asian-Americans do. A majority of voters say this in West Virginia coal country and in a deeply conservative Kentucky district. But the feeling is also common in the highly educated suburbs of Orange County, Calif.
Why is this?
Part of this is certainly due to the conflicting values that are playing out on the national stage. As the article states:
In the two years since Mr. Trump’s election, protesters and politicians on the left have lamented the erosion of values around tolerance and diversity. On the right, they have continued to mourn the loss of religious and traditional family values at the center of American life.
I will say that, absolutely, incontrovertibly, 100%, I do lament seeing a version of America emerge that is very different from how I feel America should be. Not only does it feel like America is so different from how it ought to be, but it also feels like the mechanisms and institutions that help America get better are themselves broken. It’s disheartening and depressing when the democratic process of creating change is so mired in conflict as to be gridlocked. Across the political spectrum, we all feel, in one way or another, that injustices are being allowed to perpetuate in our society, although we may disagree vehemently as to what those injustices are.
But I think there’s something more at play here than just our political differences and our differing views of America. I think we all feel miserable because, frankly, that’s what happens when a family fights with itself.
Fights with outsiders are different than fights within a family. Outsiders are people we share no connection with and have no common stake with. When we fight with outsiders, we think about “winning.” A family, though, is built on the very idea of interconnectedness, of a common bond that binds it together. Family is not something you can simply get rid of. Family is here to stay and so naturally you find ways to get along, or you end up living a miserable existence. There is no “defeating” members of our own family.
Family relationships naturally have conflict. Someone once said that the reason why being married is tougher than being engaged is because marriage turns best friends into family, and this brings with it all of the conflict that family carries. Families will often have very bitter disagreements, because of conflicting values, competing interests, and conflicts of trust. Not everyone in a family will be treated fairly or equally. Historical resentments will often persist in a family.
And yet, there is something about a family that still keeps it together. Family are those people to whom we say, “You know, sometimes, I just wanna kill you, but I don’t ever want you to die.” Even though it is not always possible for every family, humans harbor a natural feeling of wanting to belong to a family, of wanting some sense of cohesiveness to tie that group together. This is why when families fight, nobody is ever happy. Even if the parties in a family dispute ultimately get their way, somehow they never feel good about it, because of what is lost as a result of the conflict. What is lost is that very cohesiveness.
America is, in many ways, a national family. We have many competing interests, many competing values, many conflicts of trust. Like in many families, we haven’t treated all members fairly or equally, and we have historical resentments for one another. But, we also share a common thread, a diverse society brought together by an idea, the idea of a nation built on democratic values rather than based on tribal or ethnic or religious identity.
In America, liberals are going nowhere and conservatives are going nowhere. No amount of effort by other side of the political spectrum is going to eliminate the entire opposite side. Nor would we want that to happen. The whole idea of a democracy requires there to be an effective opposition. We’ve fought world wars and cold wars against societies where one side of the political spectrum attempted to dominate the entire society. In addition, we need the entire political spectrum to advocate for all facets of the multifaceted solutions we need for our multifaceted problems. (See this excellent TED talk from American Enterprise Institute president Arthur Brooks: “A conservative’s plea: Let’s work together.”)
It is not wrong for there to be conflict within such a family. Indeed, politics is built on the very idea of navigating competing interests. There is an excellent cover article from The Atlantic that, in part, criticizes the mindset that politics would be without conflict and commonsense solutions would present themselves if politicians merely set aside personal agendas. (The author refers to people of this mindset as “politiphobes.”) Advocating, protesting, compromising, wheeling-and-dealing, and profound philosophical differences—these are the very essence of politics.
Where conflict goes wrong is when it disintegrates into warfare. In warfare, the goal is simply the destruction of the enemy. The war perpetuates itself, as grievances pile up and retaliation is met with more retaliation. It continues until either one or both parties is eliminated, or one or both parties decide that ending the conflict is more important than further perpetuating the conflict to try to redress grievances.
And that’s what has happened in America. Instead of engaging in civic discourse, instead of having the political conflict characteristic of a healthy democracy, what we’ve degenerated into is all-out tribal political warfare. And this is futile and we know it’s futile, but nobody wants to back down, even as the collateral damage of the ongoing warfare continues. And so, we all feel like we’re losing—except, maybe for the man at the very top (and even the ones who are helping him don’t really feel like they’re winning). That’s the nature of a civil war. When the national cohesion is gone, nobody wins. When the trust in our society and its institutions is gone, nobody wins.
That is, until we end the fight. Until we are willing to stop perpetuating conflict, stop trying fruitlessly to “defeat” the other, and instead try to work together. Until we remember that we’re bonded with one another by nationality and at least one common creed, that we will fervently disagree with one another, but that there are still ties that bring us together.
And this brings me to the photos I posted at the top of this article. These were taken in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, on July 3, 1913. Former Union soldiers and former Confederate soldiers met up, shook hands, and broke bread together. They laughed and smiled as they talked about the crazy stuff they all did when they were kids, which was that exactly 50 years earlier, they had come together in that very same place to kill each other.