Among America’s most cherished ideas is the notion that, despite all our differences, we are one nation. It is embodied in the Pledge of Allegiance: “I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America, and to the republic for which it stands, one nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.” E Pluribus Unum - out of many, one, - appears in all our coins and in the Great Seal of the United States.
But, watching the heated political and social debates taking place all around us causes one to wonder what it means to be one nation in our fractious times. The ideological polarization of our political parties reflects the deep divisions in the country as a whole. It is more likely than not that the political volatility of the past decade will continue, barring some rare, high impact black swan event like a severe economic depression or 9/11-like terrorist attack.
What are the implications of living through an extended period of deep social divisions? How will our idea of one nation evolve over such times? Has the country ever gone through similar politically volatile times in the past? Given that the future is so unpredictable, can we at least look at our history for some guidance?
“Explanations for our current political volatility abound: toxic partisanship, the ever more fragmented and strident news media, high unemployment, economic upheaval and the clamorous upwelling of inchoate populist angst.”
“But the political instability of our own time pales when compared with the late 19th century. In the Gilded Age the American ship of state pitched and yawed on a howling sea of electoral turbulence. For decades on end, “divided government” was the norm. In only 12 of the 30 years after 1870 did the same party control the House, the Senate and the White House.”
The Gilded Age is the name given to the era of rapid economic and population growth following the Civil War. It was a time of major industrial and technological advances, including railroads, steel and factories of all sorts. The telephone and electricity were both invented and initially deployed during this period.
In his essay, Professor Kennedy discusses the challenges the country faced during these times. Foremost among them was navigating the transition from an agricultural to an industrial economy, and from a rural to an increasingly urban society; managing the labor unrest in this new industrialized, urban economy, as workers worried about their jobs, pay and working conditions; absorbing millions of immigrants; and recovering from the wounds of the Civil War.
Some of the major challenges we face today are similar, some are new. Among our most critical challenges are once more navigating an economic transition, this time to a post-industrial information and knowledge-based economy; dealing with the high unemployment resulting from the structural changes the economy is going through; and coming up with a reasonable immigration policy. Other challenges are more unique to our times, such as increased global competition; high healthcare costs; and energy, sustainability and climate issues.
Perhaps there is nothing so new here. Political and social divisions have been with us since the birth of the Republic. Lest we forget, 150 years ago, our divisions over slavery led to the Civil War which resulted in the deaths of over 600,000 soldiers and an undetermined number of civilians. More recently, the Sixties is well remembered as an era of heated cultural and social battles, including civil rights, feminism and the sexual revolution. These battles were fought in the shadows of the Vietnam War, with one side shouting, “Make love, not war,” and the other, “America, love it or leave it.”
Watching democracy in action has long been compared to sausage making - a messy, ugly process. So, are our present times similar to those that we have often experienced over the past two and a half centuries, or are there new forces pulling us apart at this time. As I think about it, three such very strong forces come to mind.
The first is the structural changes and employment challenges our economy is going through. Significant advances in technology-based productivity has meant that companies are able to get the same work done with significantly fewer people. Moreover, our increased globalization means that companies are now able to get whatever skills they need all over the world. In addition, they are cutting jobs in the US and other countries where demand is weak, while adding jobs in the booming emerging markets.
These economic changes have resulted in an increased demand for highly skilled, educated workers to deal with the continuous stream of advanced, disruptive technologies and with the demands of managing a global business. Conversely, employment opportunities have been declining for middle-skill blue collar and white collar workers, whose jobs are those most likely to have been replaced by automation or moved off-shore. The result has been a sharp rise in the inequality of wages.
The second major force driving us apart is our changing demographics, which is leading to the emergence of a new establishment in US society.
US population is growing fastest among minorities as a whole. “Immigrants and their U.S.-born descendants are expected to provide most of the U.S. population gains in the decades ahead. Since the liberalization of immigration policy in 1965, the number of first-generation immigrants living in the United States has quadrupled, from 9.6 million in 1970 to about 38 million in 2007. Almost 97% of residents of the 10 largest American cities in 1900 were non-Hispanic whites. In 2006, non-Hispanic whites were the minority in thirty-five of the fifty largest cities.”
Multiculturalism and diversity apply not just to immigration and demographics, but to inclusion in the establishment or centers of power in the country. Continuing the civil rights and feminist trends of the sixties, previously disenfranchised groups are no longer willing to stand by while others make important decisions that affect their lives, and those of their families and communities. More than ever before, they now demand a seat at the table.
But not everyone is comfortable expanding the ruling groups and sharing power. It is not surprising that the start of the Tea Party movement coincides with the election of Barack Obama as US President. Surveys of Tea Party members show that they really don’t like President Obama. Eighty-eight percent disapprove of the way he is handling his job as President; 75 percent believe that he does not share the values most Americans are trying to live by; and 30 percent still believe that he was not born in the US, despite all the evidence to the contrary. They are committed to Take America Back.
Finally, our information and communication technologies are the third major force contributing to our increased balkanization into blue-red states and blue-red states of mind. We are exposed to more information and more points of view than ever before. With 24/7 cable news, talk radio, and social networks of all sorts, we have a ringside seat to just about every aspect of our messy, chaotic democratic process. Do these revolutionary information and communications technologies help bring us together as one nation or further sharpen our differences and tear us apart?
At a recent conference I attended on Digital Technologies for 21st Century Democracy, pretty much everyone agreed that the empowerment of citizens through digital technologies is a strong positive force for democracies, but serious questions were raised about the impact of such a cacophony of voices on governance. Do they lead to wiser decisions by better informed government leaders? Or do the highly diverse, contradictory opinions and angry attacks conveyed by these voices make it increasingly difficult to achieve political consensus and get anything done?
Empowered citizens and those who profess to speak for them express lots of different opinions. And, while airing out a wide variety of opinions is essential to a democracy and contributes to civic engagement, the ensuing debates can at times be far from civil. A lot of negative, shrill, attacking opinions are heard throughout our multitude of information channels, not at all conducive to constructive dialogues. It often appears that our new technology-amplified, free-for-all conversations are more aimed at polarizing the discussions than they are at bringing us together as one nation, to hopefully find common cause in addressing our tough problems.
Despite all the powerful forces pulling us apart, I don’t think that we are in danger of truly splintering as one nation, as has been happening in so many countries around the world. But, I believe that our national governance model will have to evolve to better adapt to the new technological, economic and social realities of the 21st century. I will discuss this potential evolution of our idea of one nation in next week’s blog.