January 21, 2019

We’re Divided, but Been Here Before

U.S. President Donald Trump reads from prepared remarks as he speaks about his summit meeting in Finland with Russian President Vladimir Putin at the start of a meeting with members of the U.S. Congress at the White House in Washington, July 17, 2018. REUTERS/Leah Millis

For the haters of President Donald Trump among us, and there are many, 2018 was a difficult year. It also wasn’t a great year for haters of Trump-haters, who often make up in passion what they lack in numbers.

Where does all the hatred come from? It comes from fear. Each side of the divide is afraid of losing its stake in the American dream. Fear begets anger, which begets intolerance, which begets divisiveness and polarization and blame-laying and scapegoating — as demonstrated in abundance in 2018.

The question being asked with increasing frequency by frightened and angry Americans is: Has our country ever been this divided? 

Overlooking the Civil War, in which more than 750,000 Union and Confederate soldiers were killed, would, of course, require a particularly acute case of recency bias. But even by limiting our focus to the modern era, we can look back 50 years to the events of 1968:

• The assassinations of civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. and the likely Democratic presidential nominee, Robert Kennedy

• Urban riots that devastated the cities of Detroit, Newark, Washington and other major metropolitan areas.

• Egypt, Jordan and the Palestine Liberation Organization launched the War of Attrition against Israel in an effort to regain territory lost in the Six-Day War. Palestinian terrorists also hijacked an El Al flight, holding the passengers and crew hostage for 40 days, bombed the Tel Aviv central bus station and attacked another El Al flight preparing to leave Athens. 

Healing involves reaching out to those on the other side of the divide.

• The Soviet Union invaded Czechoslovakia. The United States suffered its greatest losses of the Vietnam War as a result of the Tet Offensive. North Korea captured and tortured 83 U.S. Navy servicemen aboard the USS Pueblo.

• Open conflict and violence between police and anti-war protesters broke out on the streets of Chicago during the city’s hosting of the Democratic National Convention. 

In other words, we haven’t been here before. But we’ve been here before.

Such is the message delivered in the best book of 2018, Jon Meacham’s patiently reassuring and quietly inspirational “The Soul of America: The Battle for Our Better Angels.” Meacham makes clear that the hatred and divisiveness corroding our public discourse have existed in this nation even before we were a nation. 

But in recounting past episodes of intolerance and fanaticism, Meacham not only walks us through these periods of ugliness but through the nation’s efforts to overcome them. We hear about the scoundrels and demagogues who divided us, as well as the leaders and heroes who brought us back together. In the process, we are both comforted and challenged. He reassures his readers with accounts of how these schisms can be repaired, but he throws down a gauntlet to us, as well.

Meacham makes it clear that we don’t overcome these animosities as a result of good karma —expecting an inevitable triumph of good over evil. Rather, society is held together when brave women and men stand up against the forces that divide us, and few societal breaches are healed when one side demands complete capitulation from the other. So, healing involves reaching out to those on the other side of the divide to find even a small patch of common ground, and it means recognizing that progress cannot be achieved until advocates on both sides of the debate are willing to pause from condemning the supposed shortcomings and misperceptions of others in order to consider their own.

The early signs are that 2019 will be just as exhausting, divisive, angry and fearful as 2018. But Meacham reminds us that looking back at past successes and failures can help us chart the path forward, and that, at best, our nation is still a work in progress.


Dan Schnur teaches political communications and leadership at USC, UC Berkeley and Pepperdine. He is the founder of the USC-L.A. Times statewide political survey and a board member of the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust.