We Are Divided by How We Define What Unites Us

I was curled up in a window seat, skimming through E.B. White’s musings for The New Yorker, and I hit a definition that must have sounded obvious in 1943. Democracy, he wrote, “is the line that forms on the right. It is the ‘don’t’ in don’t shove. It is the hole in the stuffed shirt through which the sawdust slowly trickles; it is the dent in the high hat. Democracy is the recurrent suspicion that more than half of the people are right more than half of the time. It is the feeling of privacy in the voting booth, the feeling of communion in the libraries, the feeling of vitality everywhere. Democracy is a letter to the editor…”

“Honey,” I called to my husband, who was in his office prepping to teach a history class, “we don’t have a democracy anymore.”

We have lost the courtesy White alludes to, the agreed-upon orderliness. We are far less interested in leveling the rich and raising up the poor. We no longer trust the citizenry writ large; we can no longer count on privacy in any sphere; we have lost the reassurance of common purpose and the eagerness to move forward together. Even if we did still have a real democracy, there are hardly any investigative reporters left to hold it accountable.

“We don’t have a republic, either,” Andrew called back.

“Meaning?”

“Meaning the divide isn’t between Democrats and Republicans anymore. It’s between republicans, small r, and nationalists.”

He had already lost me. He usually finds me again, though, after a bit of a history lecture. I went to lean in the doorway of his office.

“There are people who define the United States of America as the fulfillment of a universal belief that transcends place and time,” he began. “The principle that all are welcome and all are equally deserving of the rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Those people are bound by the ideals and values of the republic, based on the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights.”

They are the small-r republicans, not to be confused with the capitalized sort.

“Then there are people who envision the United States of America as a nation, a land they see as historically and intentionally white, European, and Christian—and dependent on those cultural norms for its greatness.” He waited a beat. “And both sides are becoming increasingly intolerant of each other.”

There was a time when the tension between these two perspectives served a purpose. Every nation needs some common ground—a physical landscape, an accepted language of governance, a common set of values, a shared history and frame of reference. But the values of the republic were meant to transcend the concreteness of place and time. They remind us that we are ultimately a nation based on principles and law—on abstract ideals, not blood or creed. The idea of the United States extends well beyond its guarded borders.

The tension has snapped, and we are heading apart. It is hard to talk with civility about these competing norms. Hard to talk, period, if we venture outside our bubble. We no longer learn the same news from the same widely trusted sources. We no longer share much of our cultural consumption—and it has truly become consumption, ordered up at our bidding and gobbled in private. What with scholarly deconstruction, journalistic exposé, and contagious paranoia, we have shot down a universe of agreed-upon facts and toppled institutional authorities that once made us feel safe. The world is changing fast, and we cannot agree on who we are—or what endangers us.

I read a research report that worried me, because it carried this debate right into the physical brain. Psychology researcher Ying-yi Hong coauthored a study that melded cultural symbols—fusing the American and Chinese flags, showing pictures of fusion cuisine, or putting Chairman Mao’s head on Lincoln’s body. Granted, that last mashup might give me pause, too. But what the study found was more than cognitive dissonance. Turns out this kind of blending can elicit “a pattern of disgust in the anterior insula of white Americans” who identify as deeply patriotic. It is a pattern “similar to that elicited by physical contaminant objects such as insects.”

The authors did note that it is possible to teach and learn a different response. But given the number of embattled classrooms still sorting out prayer, evolution, and sex ed, that gives me little comfort.

“Was there ever this wide a gap dividing us?” I ask my live-in historian.

“Prior to the Civil War, especially,” he says. “And we are again dividing. Now, on the nationalist side, unless you are very pink and European and you speak English, you are not really welcome here. You are mistrusted as bringing down our country. And on the left, we’re getting to the point where we don’t believe in freedom of speech. There is no allowance for the differing opinions that were one of the basic founding principles. Both sides are increasingly convinced that the other is destroying the country.”

I nod; this much is obvious. Those who value the republic see President Donald Trump as the embodiment of what threatens it. Those who love Trump see people like Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez as the embodiment of the threat. The old binary political labels are no longer helpful, because the Democratic party has become a republican party and the Republican party has become a nationalist party. We are dividing ourselves not strictly along party lines or the old liberal-conservative split, but along a line that cuts much deeper: the line between abstract, transcendent principles and a very concrete emphasis on tradition and nationality.

And the comfort of being with people who agree with us is sought just as eagerly on both sides.

“How far can the we diverge and still hold the country together?”

He shrugs. “How many nationalists go to such an extreme that they cannot hold republican values? How many people are deciding that liberal democracy is not worth it, because liberal democracy is stealing their vision of the nation? There was a similar divide in Spain prior to the Spanish Civil War. They lost all ability to talk to each other, all chance of compromise.”

And now we, too, are veering harder and harder left or right, and the window of opportunity for those in the middle to broker compromise is closing because the opinions have hardened. Moderates in both main political parties used to bridge and negotiate extreme ideas; today those moderates are as endangered as snow leopards.

The definitions themselves are not hard and fast, Andrew is careful to note. Not all republicans are woke social justice warriors, and not all nationalists are racist white nationalists. But most nationalists do want a country of true-blue Americans, culturally, linguistically, and socially. Double standards are rampant because they are rooted in the old nationalist vision: Those who want the right to refuse to do business with a certain sort of customer would squawk if a Jewish shopkeeper refused to sell to a Christian or a teacher read prayers from the Koran and Bhagavad Gita as well as the Bible.

Demographic change, technological change, a global economy, social media, and a growing insecurity have destabilized us, but so has our own—if I dare use the word—evolution. We have added new demands for economic and social justice to the founders’ original framework of legal justice. For many, these demands have not gone nearly far enough. For others, they threaten a way of life when they are extended to new Americans—or to anyone outside the traditional Judeo-Christian Euro-American paradigm.

Yet the additions to the Constitution are perfectly consistent with the original view of a fully equal, egalitarian republic.

What the republican-nationalist divide tells us is where our ultimate loyalty lies: with the success (however defined) of the nation-state or with the principles on which it was founded. The two used to balance themselves, more or less. Now the extremes tug anyone in the middle to their side, and the country tilts back and forth, wobbling like a spinning top that is rapidly losing momentum.

Subscribe to our "Mixed Issue" email newsletter!