A couple of weeks ago, the newspaper I work for published a very sad letter to the editor. The writer was mourning the death of his oldest friend, his loss made the more painful because they had become estranged. Over politics.
We’re seeing more and more of this. Friendships and families fractured, celebrations tainted, days darkened by political obsessions. What we know intuitively is backed up by data. On September 30, The University of Virginia Center for Politics published polling and data analytics that point to a stark conclusion: A whole lot of Americans want a divorce from one another.
The most startling finding in the UV study is that “roughly 4 in 10 (41 percent) of Biden and half (52 percent) of Trump voters at least somewhat agree that it’s time to split the country, favoring blue/red states seceding from the union.” Americans increasingly see political differences as irreconcilable, reflected in the 75 percent of Biden voters and 78 percent of Trump voters who see those who ardently support the opposing party as a “clear and present danger to the American way of life.” (43 percent of Biden voters and 47 percent of Trump voters believe this “strongly.”)
That’s the language of civil war.
Of course, a lot of it is just talk. But civil wars don’t start with one big explosion; there’s a long powder train laid down by hostile rhetoric and the demonizing of the political and cultural “other.” The great British narrative historian Dan Jones notes that history is always a conversation between the present and the past, and it seems to me that 21st century America has a lot to talk about with 17th century England. If we do slide into some kind of civil war, it’s liable to look a lot more like the chaotic English Civil Wars of 1642–1651 than our own North/South sectional conflict of the 1860s.
In the English conflict, political tension — largely over taxation — between Parliamentarians and an autocratic King Charles II was overlaid with profound religious contention between Puritans and High Church Anglicans. Conspiracy theories abounded, primarily around Puritan fears of a secret plot for a Catholic takeover of Protestant England. Political adversaries became enemies, and enemies, heretics. There could be no compromise. Agitators worked hard to make it impossible to reconcile. Swords were drawn, cannon unlimbered, and the realm was plunged into an abyss of war, plague and social dislocation. Families and communities were ripped asunder by conflicting allegiances.
And, as so often happens in revolutionary situations, the Puritans who cut off the head of the high-handed and foolish King Charles II in 1649 replaced his rule with a harsher, more dictatorial regime than he ever dreamed of.
If you think such terrors are a relic of a distant, less enlightened past, they’re not. Change the stage dressings to make them contemporary, and they are us. UV finds that “more than two-thirds support — and one-third strongly — emboldening and empowering strong leaders and taking the law into their own hands when it comes to dealing with people or groups they view as dangerous.” Do we really want a Cromwell — a “Lord Protector”? Talk about an existential threat to the American way of life.
This is on us. All of us.The greatest peril we face comes from darkness we carry within: Self-righteous certainty that we hold the truth and those who dissent are either stupid or malevolent. The lure of conspiracy theory that “explains” all things that cause us fear and anxiety. The impulse to empower a self-appointed Witchfinder General to sniff out heresy. The petty satisfaction that comes with seeing some sinner clapped in the stocks in the town square…
Knowing that we each and all are susceptible to such dark impulses, we can choose a different path. We can unplug from the social media and cable TV that both feeds and feeds on those dark impulses. We can reach out to that old friend or family member from whom we’ve become estranged — not to convince them of anything, not to prove them wrong, but simply to tell them that they matter to us, that our differences ultimately don’t matter so much. We can talk to each other — about anything but plague and politics. Talk about that magical hike or that wonderful musical experience. Share that spectacular meal or that fantastic piece of art at that gallery in town…
It will doubtless take time and some arduous effort to bridge divides — but it’s a whole lot better than dying estranged from those we love.