Someday, when this is all over — COVID-19, Trumpism, puritanical progressivism, civic rage, hyper-materialism — someone, a sociologist perhaps, will neatly sum up this era in American history.
He’ll chalk it all up to changing demographics. Or income disparity. Or institutional corruption, the decline of religion or the rise of social media.
She’ll say it was the breakdown of the family — or simply cultural suicide, à la Greece, Carthage, Rome and Great Britain.
Whatever the footnote — the abandonment of moral standards? ... a radicalized academia? — one thing will be clear: America had it all, and it threw it away.
No country in history has been as blessed as we’ve been, yet we’re on an unmistakable path to self destruction. It’s like we hate ourselves. How else can a nation explain putting itself $27 trillion in debt?
We could reverse course as a country, but to do that we’d have to decide who we want to be. And that’s the problem. We can’t agree.
Conservatives think the key to national fulfillment is individual liberty and responsibility. Progressives want artificial fairness, with government mediating.
Conservatives view America’s past as exceptional and aspirational; progressives view it as predatory. One side celebrates the melting pot; the other condemns cultural appropriation and seeks to herald our differences.
The National Museum of African American History and Culture released a chart recently suggesting that hard work and nuclear families are white, rather than universal, values. Not helpful. Alt-right groups traffic poisonous nonsense about intellectual hierarchies among cultures. Didn’t we squash those guys in 1945?
It would be great if we could have a grand national debate on what it means to be an American. But that’s not how the exchange of ideas works anymore. There’s benefit in division, and, besides, who among us has the time or attention span to listen to a Lincoln-Douglas debate? It’s easier, and far more emotionally satisfying, to tweet back “GET BENT.”
The world is closely watching our cultural and fiscal spiral, more closely perhaps that even we are. Allies are alarmed — incredulous; enemies are ecstatic. Both realize that a divided America is an emasculated America. How can one rely on an America that can no longer rely on itself?
There’s growing fear among foreign policy experts that our resolve will soon be tested. Maybe that’s what it will take for us to unite as a country again. I hope not.
There is, however, a ray of hope to which we can all cling. America has been hopelessly at odds before and come out stronger for it. Indeed, one could argue that America has always been at odds with itself, with our natural disagreements serving as the engine that’s moved us forward as a people.
But it’s hard to see from our present perch how good could come from today’s bitter divisions. We’ll just have to live through it the best we can and leave it to future sociologists to encapsulate.
What on earth will they say?
William F. B. O’Reilly is a consultant to Republicans.