America has held together through worse times than now

People participate in a protest against U.S. Immigration Policies.
Editor's note:

This is the first in a five-part series of essays looking at whether the American project can survive. Read the rest of the essays here.

Sen. Lindsay Graham (R-SC) reminded President Trump earlier this year, “America is an idea, not a race.”  That idea is actually a plural of concepts based on our Constitution, our system of democratic institutions and norms, and our belief in the American Dream—the notion that regardless of where you come from, you can realize anything, go anywhere. I call this body of concepts the American Project, an enterprise that always has been and will continue to be a work in progress.

You don’t need to be told that the American Project is being sorely tested. Our society and policy are deeply divided along political, geographic, and economic lines. Writing a quarter century ago, historian Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. presciently pointed to the tribal forces that he warned then were “disuniting America,” the key words in the title of his 1991 book.[1]  Things have gotten worse since.

I have witnessed the growing divides in this country first hand in the years since moving back to my home state of Kansas, after spending more than a quarter century in the Washington “thought bubble” and working for roughly four decades as a professional policy wonk. My move doesn’t mean I have changed my views, but it has given me added perspective.

Despite the despair that many on both sides of the political divide share, I am cautiously optimistic about the future of the American Project, for reasons elaborated here. I admit, I could be wrong. The rapid technological changes that many fear will displace or suppress the incomes of millions of workers, especially in the vast middle of the country that are not university towns or high-tech havens, could aggravate resentments against minorities and immigrants and make this country a much meaner place. With some work and some demographic changes, such a dystopian outcome hopefully will be avoided.

You don’t need to be told that the American Project is being sorely tested. Our society and policy is deeply divided along political, geographic, and economic lines.

The Civil War, Vietnam, Watergate, and the “Big Sort”

If it’s social and cultural division we now fear, we can’t forget that our nation came back together after a horrific Civil War that killed more than 600,000 Americans. To be sure, the reunification process has been difficult. Slavery was quickly replaced in the South by Jim Crow laws that lasted roughly a century. The disturbing presence of hate groups in America continues to this day. Police shootings of unarmed black Americans, a long-time problem brought to the surface through smart phones and body-cams, and the continuing large disparities in income and wealth between black and white Americans provide stark reminders that the residues of slavery remain.

But we cannot ignore progress. Over the past five decades, civil rights have been expanded not only for blacks, but also for women and for gay, lesbian and transgender Americans. One important indicator of increasing tolerance emphasized by historians and social scientists: inter-racial and same-sex marriage, unthinkable and illegal when I was growing up, is now widely, though not universally, acceptable and legal.

My generation lived through the deep socio-political divisions caused by the Vietnam War. The nation was also deeply divided in the 1970s over the Watergate affair that ultimately ended with Richard Nixon’s resignation from the presidency in 1974. As with the Civil War, we got through these events despite the dark days, when many surely doubted we would.

It is true that our political parties are deeply split along ideological lines that continue to shift and seem to be moving toward the extremes. But among voters, these divisions are not as stark as many may believe. Stanford political scientist Morris Fiorina provides much evidence documenting the relatively stable and high share of the voting public that supports centrist policies.

Nonetheless, our polity suffers by the “sorting” of people into like-minded enclaves, described nearly a decade ago by Bill Bishop in The Big Sort. President Obama famously declared at the 2004 Democratic convention that he wanted to unite Blue and Red America, and lamented at the end of his Presidency his failure to do so.

Social media and cable news channels make things worse, intensifying the feelings of those at both ends of the political spectrum, while confirmation bias—paying attention only to information that validates one’s preexisting views—reinforces these tendencies.

But we are not going back to the media world in which baby boomers like me grew up, dominated by news from the three television networks. It is not yet clear whether attempts to source news more accurately, as Facebook is attempting, will help restore facts to the place they once held or break down peoples’ information silos.

On a more positive note, those who worry about the autocratic tendencies of this administration (especially its attacks on the Justice Department and the FBI) should keep in mind that a society in which late-night comics satirize the president on a regular basis is not an autocracy. 

We will (eventually) adapt 

Economists and other social scientists that study human behavior agree on one thing: People adapt to changing circumstances. MIT economist Andrew Lo, one of the world’s leading experts on finance, published a fascinating book in 2017, Adaptive Markets, centered on this central insight that people and institutions don’t sit still.

Lo’s adaptive markets notion, a variant of Darwin’s theory of natural selection, has wide applications. In a perfect world, government and individuals would anticipate potentially disastrous events and do their best to prevent them. As we know, there are costs from failing to act when it is justified. But gaining consensus on predictions by even the best forecasters, and then taking proactive measures, is rarely done. Consider three examples:

First, take man-made climate change. The hard reality is no one knows for certain the timing or the magnitude of these effects. That is why, more than a decade ago, the recently retired conservative legal jurist Richard Posner sensibly urged policymakers to think like insurers. Insurers don’t demand certainties; rather, they consider probabilities. That implies we ought to behave as if there is a risk that the problem of man-made climate change is significant enough and already here to warrant some kind of action.

While property-casualty insurers and reinsurers are prudently affecting building decisions in their pricing of insurance, policymakers are still taking a very haphazard and inefficient approach to what may be climate change-related intensified hurricanes and forest fires. We wait for the disasters to happen and then partially compensate injured parties through a combination of insurance, disaster aid, and litigation. Nonetheless, some adaptation is in evidence. Tougher building codes are being imposed for reconstructed properties and, in some cases, those owning property near high-hazard bodies of water are being bought out. Measures like this may grow bolder if, or most likely when, we experience more intense climate-related disasters.

A second example is terrorism. The adaptation pattern here is all too familiar. Governments do their best to anticipate the next targets and means of attack by responding to what has just occurred—heightened security in airports, for instance. But it is very difficult to anticipate the next mode of attack and take steps to prevent such incidents.

So it is with the third example, the problem of mass shootings by “lone wolfs” without a cause or mission. The recent tragedy in Parkland, Florida is yet another horrific example of why I and most Americans support some “sensible” gun control measures, such as stiffer background checks (which President Trump appears willing to support) and banning assault weapons and other guns with high capacity magazines. I believe all these measures will reduce the frequency of these terrible tragedies. But we also have to be honest that even with the best gun control reforms in place, deranged people will be able find guns legally—in the increasing number of states that allow citizens to carry them—or illegally, and use them or other instruments of violence (cars or trucks) to perpetrate horrifying acts of violence.

I am hopeful that technological solutions (lightweight bullet-proof clothing and new methods of impeding perpetrators once they begin their attacks) will be developed to mitigate the numbers of injuries and deaths that result from attacks that can’t be prevented from the start. Enhanced security measures will evolve over time to better protect people in public and private places. Already some banks and credit card companies are talking about refusing payment for assault weapons (although this won’t stop cash purchases). It is also possible that improved mental health care will reduce the number of people that choose to carry out a Lone Wolf attack. As we pursue gun reforms, a “Manhattan Project-style” federally funded R&D effort in each of these areas would accelerate our “adapting” to the harsh reality of living in a country where these horrifying acts have become all too commonplace.

Some demographic reasons for hope

Although I am not optimistic that our social, economic and political divisions will heal any time soon, I do have hope the farther out I look, for three reasons:

First, millennials, who are the most educated generation in American history and have generally been raised to be tolerant of differences in race, ethnicity, and sexual orientation, will eventually run our country. Already, some young people in elected positions have proved to be highly pragmatic yet idealistic, and thus a source of hope that eventually our electorate and our leaders will be less divided than now.

Although I am not optimistic that our social, economic and political divisions will heal any time soon, I do have hope the farther out I look.

Admittedly, millennials are far from perfect. Survey evidence from the Pew Research Center suggests that many millennials are self-absorbed. Even Millennials agree with this assessment. But comedian Trevor Noah has it right when he observes that although millennials may feel too “entitled,” they are also driven. They wish to make a change.”

Second, one silver lining of the sexual harassment and abuse cases out Hollywood, Washington and corporate America is that they are driving record numbers of women to run for elected positions. Without stereotyping, there is evidence that women politicians are more likely than male politicians to compromise and work together, an essential feature of effective governing.

Third, as populism drives both political parties to extremes, there is a potentially vast middle of the electorate—fiscally conservative, socially liberal, desperate for leaders willing to compromise and a return to normalcy and civility in our political conversations—that are already independent or who could defect from their current party to  make up a politically viable, new third party. The crazier things get, and the more dysfunctional the federal government becomes, the likelier the formation of such a third party, capable of changing our government for the good, becomes.

These times seem dark—and in many ways they are. But we’ve been through worse and managed to adapt. Though we could adapt in the future in way inimical to ideals of the American Project, there are at least several reasons to hope for a better outcome.

Next up: Problem solving in a divided country

  • Footnotes
    1. See Morris Fiorina, Unstable Majorities: Polarization, Party Sorting and Political Stalemate (Hoover Institution Press, 2017).
    2. Bill Bishop, The Big Sort: Why The Clustering of America is Tearing us Apart (Mariner Books, 2009).
    3. See Cass R. Sunstein, #republic (Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2017).
    4. Andrew Lo, Adaptive Market (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2017).
    5. Richard Posner, Catastrophe: Risk and Response (Oxford University Press, 2005)
    6. Charlotte Alter, “When Millennials Rule,” Time, October 23, 2017, pp. 90-93.
    7. Trevor Noah, “The Thing About Millenials,” Time, January 15, 2018, p. 23.