I had an interesting inquiry from a friend the other day. He wanted to know how I thought the upcoming few years would compare with the turmoil of the late 1960s–and whether I thought American divisions are as deep now as they were then.
As those of you who are regular readers of this blog may recall, when Trump “won” the election, my first prediction was that we were going to see a replay of the 60s, but on steroids. So yes–as I said in response to my friend’s inquiry– I think the country’s divisions are every bit as deep as they were then.
But I also think those divisions are different in kind; I think they run along different lines of demarcation.
When I was doing research for my book “God and Country,” I learned about a phenomenon called paradigm shift—times in human history where social/experiential/intellectual change is so profound that people on either side of the shift can no longer communicate with each other. The phrase was coined by Thomas Kuhn, a physicist and philosopher who, as a student, read Aristotle and realized he didn’t understand him. Kuhn concluded that neither he nor Aristotle was stupid (!), but that the nature of the realities they inhabited had changed so dramatically that they no longer spoke the same scientific language.
Kuhn concluded that competing paradigms are frequently incommensurable; that is, they are competing and irreconcilable accounts of reality. Today, I think urban and rural Americans, and educated and uneducated Americans (to grossly and unfairly oversimplify the categories) live in those incommensurable different realities.
Election data strongly suggests that a significant percentage of Trump voters harbored sexist and racial resentments. When your world is changing, when technology is confusing and new norms are disorienting and your formerly privileged status is no longer so privileged, it is comforting to have someone to blame for that bewildering new reality. Trump obligingly provided those people with scapegoats: Muslims, African-Americans, women, Mexicans, Jews.
Meanwhile, educated people in urbanized environments, people occupying the new paradigms, comfortable with diverse populations and new technologies, have increasingly embraced that paradigm’s more cosmopolitan and inclusive worldviews.
So — yes, the divisions are certainly as deep as they were in the 60s. On the other hand, while history may “cycle,” it doesn’t actually repeat itself.
The wild card, as I see it, is that Trump is so obviously deranged and dangerous he makes Nixon look normal. Nixon was a much more conventional bad actor, and he did know how government worked, did understand foreign relations. He even championed policies that today’s rightwing would consider unacceptably liberal; he established the EPA, wanted national healthcare, went to China…
Trump is a very different kettle of fish. Moreover, he is pursuing all sorts of “policies” (if you can call his ego tantrums “policies”) that enrage multiple different constituencies. America has never seen anything like Trump, and my guess is that only hard-core neo-Nazis and other White Supremacists are going to stick with him for very long. Furthermore, Nixon did actually win the popular vote, albeit by a very small margin, while Trump started in a three-million vote hole that would have been even deeper but for GOP vote suppression.
Bottom line, in the 60s, not only were the “sides” more equally balanced, the so-called “country club Republicans” were firmly in the anti-flower-child camp. Today, those Republicans– Chamber of Commerce business people, responsible conservatives, mainstream Christians, officials from prior Republican administrations–are appalled by Trump, not by those who oppose him.
The critical unanswered questions are, first, whether several decades of persistent assaults on our constitutional and electoral institutions (gerrymandering, vote suppression, abuse of the filibuster, etc.) has weakened them so badly that a minority of lunatic Republicans can continue to keep control of the federal government despite the fact that majorities of Americans disapprove and are finally engaging politically; and second, if our time-honored checks and balances do fail, what happens then?
Comparisons to the 60s only take you so far. We’re in uncharted waters….