Maybe it is 1860 all over again. Within days after President Obama’s re-election, disgruntled red-state Republicans (and even some terminally alienated blue-state GOP diehards) were petitioning their states to secede from the Union.
Granted, these latter-day rebels were scanty in number and could easily be dismissed as cranks. Secession has been a touchy issue on these shores since the previous Civil War, and our federal government doesn’t exactly help grease the wheels of state secessionist movements.
What made the secession threat intriguing was the accommodating response from so many denizens of the left and near-left: Let them go, and good riddance!
I’d read these mini-diatribes against Red America — that primitive and alien land of old-time religion, gun worship, antipathy toward gays and blacks and foreigners, anti-science obstinacy, substandard grammar and misplaced apostrophes, environmental brutality, cheerleaders with big hair, and on and on. We’re two separate and irreconcilable cultures, proclaimed the blue-state hipsters with their radio dials perpetually tuned to NPR’s squeaky-voiced Ira Glass and whatever obscure music combo happened to be looking edgy at the moment. And it wasn’t just the hipsters: several of my more mature, tax-paying, solid-citizen liberal friends were feeling the same urge to jettison the hicks and get on with life.
As I compared the beefy, godfearing, trailer-dwelling Bubbas with the ironic, compulsively slim, chef-worshipping bicoastal urbanites, I began to wonder if Lincoln made a mistake by attempting to lasso the Confederate states back into the Union. All those hundreds of thousands of gallant young warriors cut down in their prime — for what?
In 2012 the United States seems to consist of two peoples inhabiting opposite sides of a deep gorge. The bridges are down, and
the two cultures are evolving away from each other. Eventually, like Darwin’s finches on their isolated islands, they could emerge as separate species. Maybe we needed to go our separate ways after all.
Then I came to my senses. First we had to consider the thorny logistics of dismantling the republic. What if a hipster magnet like Austin wanted to secede from Texas? What if the hillbilly stronghold of central Pennsylvania decided to go rogue and cut the cord from Philadelphia and Pittsburgh? We’d make the pre-Bismarck patchwork of petty German kingdoms and duchies look like a unified empire by comparison.
More important by far, we needed to think about the shared qualities that brought us together in the first place — aside from our boiling resentment of the taxes imposed by good old King George III. Surely a people that collectively loves pizza, movies and beer can join forces once again for the common good.
But even there, chances are that the blue-staters would prefer white pizza with artisanal goat-cheese topping, small independent films and microbrew beer, preferably from Belgium. The red-staters would gladly take pepperoni, blockbusters and Budweiser. Is there any hope?
What made us — all of us — a unique people known to the world as Americans? Was it our willingness to abandon ancestral roots for the chance to start a fresh life? Our bold spirit of pioneering, discovery and enterprise? Our national preoccupation with success? Our ability to welcome and assimilate newcomers from a hundred nations? Our admirable balance between rugged individualism and community spirit? Our willingness to help our neighbors — even if they lived halfway around the world? Our good-natured, down-to-earth irreverence in the face of airy pretentiousness (a trait embodied by native American philosophers like Mark Twain and Will Rogers)?
I’d vote an emphatic “Yes!” to all of the above. So what happened?
First, the ’60s happened. Traditional values came under assault by scruffy young radicals, and the traditionalists rebounded by digging in and rebelling against the rebels. Soon enough it turned into a shouting contest: Rush Limbaugh bellowing against the mushy entitlement state… liberals heaping infamy on the banksters… Bush Derangement Syndrome followed swiftly by Obama Derangement Syndrome… Republicans refusing to cooperate with Democrats… red-staters and blue-staters morphing into grotesque self-caricatures… Twitter mavens tweeting to their own amen corners… contentious opinions swirling in cyberspace, growing more and more distorted and snarky and intolerant of dissent… age-old friendships ending abruptly with a flurry of political and cultural fisticuffs.
It doesn’t look promising at the moment. A grueling, open-ended recession (no apparent light visible yet at the end of this tunnel) has frayed our national nerves, fueled hostility and exacerbated our differences. The haves are pulling blithely away from the have-nots, and (most alarmingly) the middle class is joining the underclass in an unhappy and unexpected alliance of the downtrodden. Upward mobility is virtually dead unless you’re already up (with a little effort, members of the elite can grow still eliter).
We begin to look more and more like a Latin American republic, even without considering the vast numbers of unassimilated Spanish speakers in our midst: a small, self-entitled upper crust and a vast peasantry, separate and unequal.
But this is the United States of America, you insist. We have our pride. Our history and our legacy are at stake. What can we do to rouse ourselves, reunite ourselves, restore a sense of common purpose?
I have an answer (not the answer, because nothing is that simple these days. But any answer is better than none). And my answer is simply this: stop thinking in terms of “us” and “them.” See individuals. Individuals who are just as proud, ornery, flawed, confused, scared and magnificent as we are. Like all living organisms, they simply want to survive, thrive and pass the baton to the next generation.
If we want a baton to pass along, we’ll have to stop hunkering down in our ideological bunkers. We need to step outside, breathe some fresh air and wave to our neighbors on the other side of the chasm. Then we need to repair the bridges that broke down over the past few decades. We don’t want to evolve into two separate and incompatible species, do we? After all, we’re not finches… we’re Americans.
Rick Bayan is founder-editor of The New Moderate.