In the hours after Election Day, as Donald Trump seemed on the point of losing the Presidency, he spiralled through emotions like Lear on the heath—raging at Fox News for calling Arizona for Joe Biden, fantasizing about “fraud,” vowing to seek salvation from his appointees to the Supreme Court.
Biden, in his campaign, had presented himself as a firebreak, a barrier against the inferno of another four years. But, to Democrats’ disappointment, Americans had not delivered a blunt repudiation of Trump and his values; instead, they had shown themselves to be intractably divided. A century and a half after the Civil War, America was again a cloven nation. Ending Trump’s Presidency would not solve the underlying problems that produced it, leaving Americans to face a haunting question of history: Can a country argue its way back from the abyss?
In the summer of 1858, as the American experiment careered toward war, two foes—Abraham Lincoln and Stephen A. Douglas—met in northern Illinois, for the first in a series of debates on the future of slavery. Lincoln, who was challenging Douglas for his seat in the Senate, loomed a foot taller than his opponent, a squat, tenacious debater celebrated as the Little Giant. The men embodied both sides of America’s fatal divide: Douglas, who warned that Lincoln would make the prairie as “black as night,” advocated “popular sovereignty,” which would hasten the spread of slavery into the Western territories—a prospect that Lincoln could not abide.
By the standards of politics today, the debates—seven in all—were an exhibit of unrecognizable democratic rigor. In each one, either Lincoln or Douglas spoke first for an hour; then the other responded for an hour and a half; finally, the first spoke for another half hour. (In a previous encounter, they had held forth for seven hours.)
Since the ancient Greeks, effective politics has combined spectacle and substance. For a people untouched by television, Lincoln-Douglas was “the best circus in town,” as a reporter on the scene described it. Before the speakers began, bands played and liquor flowed. But, if the debates were social occasions, they were not trivial ones. Thousands of people crowded around to listen, without the comfort of chairs or shade or electric amplification. Politics was mostly reserved for white, wealthy males, but on the edges of the crowd were women, European immigrants, and semiliterate frontiersmen. Attendees were so desperate to hear the debaters that they climbed onto a wooden platform, which collapsed under their weight. They shouted encouragement (“Hit him again!”) and hung banners with taunting nicknames (“Douglas the Dead Dog—Lincoln the Living Lion”).
Week after week, the debaters traversed Illinois. Lincoln, short on cash, travelled by coach and ferry, while Douglas, a wealthy man whose wife owned slaves, journeyed on a private train, announcing his arrival by firing a cannon marked “Popular Sovereignty.” At times, the discourse onstage neared combustion. When Douglas falsely accused Lincoln of a conspiracy to abolish slavery, Lincoln leaped from his seat and advanced on his opponent until a colleague pulled him back. But the event stayed in the realm of persuasion. As Lincoln had put it, “Reason—cold, calculating, unimpassioned reason—must furnish all materials for our future support and defense.”
For Lincoln, the debates became the venue for the full expression of his humanism. He sought to be progressive but electable, “radical without sounding too damned radical,” in the words of David S. Reynolds, the author of the new cultural biography “Abe: Abraham Lincoln in His Times.” Lincoln’s boldest comments came in the final encounter, when he made a stark distinction between “one class that looks upon the institution of slavery as a wrong, and another class that does not look upon it as a wrong.” Framing the issue in clear moral terms, he said, “It is the eternal struggle between these two principles—right and wrong—throughout the world. They are the two principles that have stood face to face from the beginning of time.”
Lincoln lost his race for the Senate, but his performance in the debates made him famous. In the Presidential contest of 1860, he won the North, which included all the states in which Black men could vote and also the six states in which the Lincoln-Douglas debates had been published. When he received invitations to speak, he often told people to read the debates instead. The Lincoln-Douglas debates came to be regarded as a preëminent example of American political discourse in the nineteenth century—a fierce clash of ideas, sustained by the close attention of the public.
But they also came to represent a darker lesson: for all their eloquence, they could not avert the Civil War, or protect Lincoln from assassination. American political culture was bounded by a contest between reason and violence—a seesawing battle that continues to this day, between the aspiration to persuade fellow-citizens to accept your views and the raw instinct to force them to comply.
In 2018, the comedian John Mulaney offered an analogy for Trump’s managerial style: he compared the President to “a horse loose in a hospital,” a wild-eyed creature dangerously out of place. “No one knows what the horse is going to do next, least of all the horse,” Mulaney said.
In 2020, instead of Lincoln-Douglas, Americans were subjected to the Trump-Biden debates, an opera-buffa display that was relieved only when Biden turned to the camera and beseeched the public, with an expression usually reserved for hostage videos. Confined to two-minute statements, with frequent interruptions, the debates addressed only narrow aspects of the present distress. There was no mention of Trump’s declaring “when the looting starts, the shooting starts,” his invention of an “Obamagate” conspiracy, his taunting women of color in Congress (“Send them back”), or his funnelling federal money into his golf courses and hotels—much less his expansion of oil-drilling rights in Alaska or his failure to address school massacres. After the candidates’ second debate, in which Trump was subdued by the moderator’s ability to cut off his microphone, Chris Lehane, a Democratic political consultant, conceded that it was “not exactly Lincoln-Douglas.” He told the Times, “One guy showed he was not a thug for about seventy-five minutes out of ninety minutes. And the other guy showed he was not senile.”
It’s not clear that many people would have been susceptible to persuasion. At the Fund for Peace, a think tank in Washington, researchers ranked the political “cohesion” of various countries between 2008 and 2018; they measured the entrenchment of factions, trust in the security forces, and the level of popular discontent. The United States recorded the largest drop in cohesion among any of the countries studied, including Libya, Mali, and Bahrain. In 2009, Barack Obama’s first year in office, the number of anti-government “patriot” groups more than tripled, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center. Since 2001, right-wing terrorists have killed more people in America than Islamic extremists have. In a paper presented two years ago, the political scientists Nathan Kalmoe and Lilliana Mason found that fifteen per cent of Republicans and twenty per cent of Democrats believed that the U.S. would be better off if large numbers of the opposing party “just died.”
For nearly four years, Trump has governed in the register of force. “You have to dominate,” he told state governors in June, as protests expanded in the wake of George Floyd’s killing. “Most of you are weak.” In the run-up to the election, Republican leaders in Congress abandoned even the pretense of restraint, in pursuit of enshrining minoritarian rule by a party that is older and whiter than the country at large. They hustled a conservative Supreme Court nominee through confirmation at breakneck speed, filed scores of suits to bar the casting or the counting of ballots, and curtailed a census that would record growing populations in diverse, Democratic-leaning areas. It was a brazen acknowledgment that, without a significant intervention, Trump lacked the public support to remain President. Days before the election, a caravan of trucks and cars surrounded a Biden campaign bus on a Texas highway, trying to run it off the road. Trump tweeted, “These patriots did nothing wrong.”
Larry Diamond, a political scientist at Stanford’s Hoover Institution and a former adviser to the Coalition Provisional Authority, in Iraq, told me, “There’s no other way to say this: the Republican Party, with notably few exceptions, has become a party of semi-loyalty to democracy. If you want to stop this, the answer is very simple. The Republican politicians who know better, in the House, the Senate, and the governorships, have to speak up. If they don’t put the preservation of democracy and civility over their own political careers, we’re going to keep sliding down this path.”
As Americans confront the uncertainty of the next four years, it’s not clear if the tradition of force or of reason is ascendant. Some theorists and philosophers are optimistic, beginning to map out plans to revive social cohesion and common purpose. Others fear that the cleavages will only widen, until Americans reckon with a culture of political warfare that comes ever closer to actual combat.
From the beginning, the people who built America were seeking to improve on “what kings and popes had decreed,” the Stanford historian Caroline Winterer wrote in “American Enlightenments,” from 2016. “Wielding the gleaming razor of human reason, sharpened by empirical evidence, common sense, and withering sarcasm, they would slash away at traditions that rested on nothing but the dust of convention and privilege.”
Early Americans formed literary salons, subscription libraries, and scientific societies, animated by the spirit of the Enlightenment. Benjamin Franklin gathered what he called “ingenious Acquaintances” into a “Club for mutual Improvement.” Known as the Junto, it was devoted to rigor, training, and the spread of the printed word, an ethic that the club called “Reason’s eye.”
By the mid-nineteenth century, the country was in the midst of a vibrant literary outpouring. In Washington, orators such as Henry Clay and Daniel Webster gained influence through speeches that drew huge crowds. “Eloquence, in this empire, is power,” a journalist observed. A generation of writers and politicians—Margaret Fuller, Elizabeth Peabody, Frederick Douglass, Walt Whitman—produced impassioned writings and speeches that they hoped would reform the young Republic, giving rise to what the scholar James Perrin Warren later called a “culture of eloquence.” On the lyceum circuit, they travelled from town to town, an adult-education campaign offering lectures on everything from physical exercise to the moral crisis of slavery. Alfred Bunn, an Englishman visiting in 1853, said that it was “a matter of wonderment” to see “the over-tired artisan, the worn-out factory girl” rush from work to “the hot atmosphere of a crowded lecture room.” Even as the country slid toward the Civil War, the lectures continued, rooted in the belief in what Warren called “the word as a means toward reform.”
At the same time, America was embarking on a surge of political violence, much of it directed at Black people, immigrants, Native Americans, and abolitionists. Between the eighteen-thirties and the outbreak of war, there were at least thirty-five major riots in the Northeast. One of them began in June, 1857, when three nativist gangs—the Chunkers, the Rip-Raps, and the Plug Uglies—attacked Catholic immigrants in Washington, D.C., as they tried to cast ballots. The U.S. Marines, called in to quell the unrest, ended up responsible for a number of deaths.
But the most ominous sign for the Republic was the growing brutality among some of the country’s most powerful people: members of Congress. In “The Field of Blood,” the Yale history professor Joanne B. Freeman examined scores of previously unstudied attacks and melees, often initiated by Southern lawmakers who regarded opposition to slavery as a threat to their property and their power. In the eighteen-forties, Representative John Dawson, of Louisiana, threatened to cut a colleague’s throat “from ear to ear,” and was stopped from shooting another only by the intervention of other congressmen. Freeman described a legislature guided by the ethics of professional wrestling: “Punching. Pistols. Bowie knives. Congressmen brawling in bunches while colleagues stood on chairs to get a good look.” The fighting escalated to the point that a Southern lawmaker threatened to lead an assault on the Capitol, and British diplomats came to regard the House floor as too dangerous to visit. Benjamin Brown French, a genial New Englander who served as clerk of the House of Representatives, stopped socializing with Southerners and ultimately took to carrying a pistol.
When I asked Freeman how violence and the cult of reason could coexist, she said that they sprang from a shared motive: “How did you prove that you were a leader in that period, to a vast audience? How did you earn support? Maybe through aggressive oratory. Maybe by making, and keeping, promises for your constituents, state, and section of the Union. And, for a time, maybe by displaying your domination of the political playing field with bullying and aggression.”
Freeman’s history of congressional violence is an account of how some of the most privileged members of a society began to see their counterparts as enemies, and eventually as existential threats. Once political leaders lost trust in each other, the public was doomed to follow. “Unable to turn to the government for resolution, Americans North and South turned on one another,” she wrote.
In 1844, Samuel F. B. Morse, the pioneer of the telegraph, transmitted his first message: “What hath God wrought?” Morse predicted that his invention would unify Americans, making “one neighborhood of the whole country.” Indeed, the telegraph brought benefits beyond measure. But it also tipped politics toward entertainment and fear, lighting a fuse that runs through to the age of @ realDonaldTrump.
The day after Morse unveiled his device, a newspaper used a telegraph to relay the first squib of news from Washington to Baltimore. By the end of the century, readers were wading through a flood of cheap errata from afar—mostly of war, crime, fires, and floods. Neil Postman, one of the twentieth century’s most prominent scholars of communications, wrote, “The telegraph may have made the country into ‘one neighborhood,’ but it was a peculiar one, populated by strangers who knew nothing but the most superficial facts about each other.”
In “Amusing Ourselves to Death,” published in 1985, Postman described how the triumph of television further heightened the entertainment value of politics. He watched the 1984 Presidential debates, between Ronald Reagan and Walter Mondale, and lamented the hollow dodges, casual deceptions, and abbreviated answers. With a level of alarm that now looks quaint, he bemoaned Reagan’s easy laugh lines and wrote, “The men were less concerned with giving arguments than with ‘giving off’ impressions, which is what television does best.” It would be three decades before the host of a reality show entered a bid for the Presidency. But Postman already sensed that “the demarcation line between what is show business and what is not becomes harder to see with each passing day.”
Richard Hofstadter, the eminent political scientist, is best known for his work on what he called the “arena for uncommonly angry minds,” including anti-intellectualism and “the paranoid style.” But, in 1970, near the end of his life, Hofstadter became fascinated by the juncture of politics and force. It had swept through American life in recent years, producing assassinations and riots. Working with a co-author, Michael Wallace, who collected two thousand cases of violence—massacres, rebellions, vigilantism—he hoped to address what he called the American paradox: “There is far more violence in our national heritage than our proud, sometimes smug, national self-image admits of.”
Sharp turns in politics and economics inspired new forms of bloodletting. After the Civil War, the Ku Klux Klan and other vigilantes adopted lynching to prevent freed Black people from working, studying, and voting. In the first scholarly study of lynching, from 1903, the sociologist James E. Cutler described it as a “criminal practice which is peculiar to the United States.” Later, as workers started to organize and demand protections, violence ignited. In 1914, the National Guard stormed an encampment of workers in the Colorado coalfields, causing a rifle battle and setting tents on fire, killing eleven children and two women. The historians Philip Taft and Philip Ross later wrote, “The United States has had the bloodiest and most violent labor history of any industrial nation.”
Hofstadter noted that in America, unlike the rest of the world, political violence rarely involved poor citizens rising up against a powerful state; more often, citizens attacked one another, and, usually, the attackers were established Americans—white Protestants, in many cases—turning on minorities, immigrants, “Catholics, radicals, workers and labor organizers.” Hofstadter made note of “verbal and ideological violence” that laid the foundation for actual harm. He also fretted about a “rising mystique of violence on the left.” By 1969, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, a civil-rights group co-founded by John Lewis, had elected new leadership and dropped “Nonviolent” from its name. The usually staid New York Review of Books had featured an instructional diagram for making a Molotov cocktail. On both the left and the right, Hofstadter sensed, politics was giving way to a culture of self-expression suited to the rise of television, in which the “distinction between politics and theatre has been deliberately blurred.” Practitioners had figured out that what played well on TV was often the language and the imagery of force.
Neil Postman liked to explain American history as a sequence of metaphors, which, he wrote, “create the content of our culture.” Each era had its own: the Western frontier, Upton Sinclair’s urban slaughterhouse, and eventually the gilded illusions of Las Vegas. Postman died in 2003, but he might have found the central metaphor of contemporary American culture in the era of “twilight” warfare, which began on September 11, 2001, and extended to Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Somalia, Syria, and at least nine other countries where U.S. troops were dispatched under the banner of fighting terrorism.
The language of conflict blended with entertainment and bled back into politics. In 2006, Laura Ingraham, the conservative commentator, cited the TV series “24,” which featured frequent depictions of torture. “The average American out there loves the show ‘24,’ ” she said. “In my mind, that’s as close to a national referendum that it’s O.K. to use tough tactics against high-level Al Qaeda operatives as we’re going to get.”
At times, the war came home, captured in headlines about a foiled plot or a radicalized “homegrown” terrorist. But, for most Americans, it was an abstraction, fought far away from what was now routinely described as the “homeland.” In the twilight war, Americans had acquired an enemy that felt invisible but ever present, everywhere and nowhere, threatening enough that any measures became permissible. Geography and details became incidental. More than three years into the Iraq War, a National Geographic poll found that fewer than a quarter of Americans with some college education could locate Iraq, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Israel on a map.
The peril of ignorance is a perennial American lament. Less than a generation after the founding of the country, Thomas Jefferson wrote, “If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be.” But, by the early years of the twenty-first century, Americans were no longer surprised by annual reports that showed our students falling behind other countries’. In a 2005 survey, two-thirds of Americans could not name the three branches of government. Scarcely a third of high-school seniors read at or above the level of proficiency.
Americans were not just losing their grip on the basics of science, civics, and cultural knowledge; they didn’t seem to care. In 2004, an aide to George W. Bush (widely identified as Karl Rove, though he denied it) dismissed the “reality-based community,” by which he meant people who insist on inconvenient facts. “We’re an empire now,” the aide told the journalist Ron Suskind, “and when we act, we create our own reality.” Magical thinking was taking its place on the main stage of politics. Bill Moyers, in a speech on end-times rhetoric in evangelical politics, lamented, “One of the biggest changes in politics in my lifetime is that the delusional is no longer marginal.” In the 2008 book “The Age of American Unreason,” Susan Jacoby declared, “America is now ill with a powerful mutant strain of intertwined ignorance, anti-rationalism and anti-intellectualism.”
Trump made the invention of reality a central doctrine of his government. He installed a sixty-inch television in his dining room, and was said to spend as much as eight hours a day watching cable news. (Trump denies this.) He often ambled into unfamiliar facts; he suggested that Frederick Douglass was still alive (“getting recognized more and more”), congratulated Poland on the anniversary of its invasion by the Nazis, and pronounced Yosemite to rhyme with Vegemite, the Australian breakfast spread. Because of his aversion to reading intelligence briefings, aides resorted to showing him pictures and homemade movies. Linguists who assessed his spoken vocabulary found that he used the most primitive language of any of the last fifteen Presidents. (Herbert Hoover was ranked the most sophisticated.) According to the standard measure of complexity in writing, the Flesch-Kincaid index, Trump communicated at the level of a fourth grader.
The crises of 2020 imposed immovable facts on Trump’s politics of unreality. Facing the deaths from the COVID-19 pandemic and a pattern of police killings of Black men and women, Trump’s government slumped into paralysis. Congress proved unable to pass real policing reforms, and could not even gather itself to approve a second round of emergency economic assistance. Week by week, as Trump raged against problems beyond his aptitude to address, he leaned ever more on the language and the symbolism of force—a mode of expression that might be called the violent style.
Trump, who came to the Presidency by generating a miasma of fear around Mexicans and Muslims, adapted his weapons to new enemies; he railed against “human scum” and “thugs” and “traitors,” threatening to send a “surge” of federal agents into cities, such as Chicago, that are home to large Black populations. When scattered acts of looting accompanied early protests against racial injustice, Mark Esper, the Secretary of Defense, called for dominating the “battlespace.” Trump dispatched paramilitary agents to Portland, Oregon (“Worse than Afghanistan,” he said), forcing people into unmarked cars. In a speech from the South Lawn, on July 4th, he likened his project to that of the “American heroes” who “defeated the Nazis, dethroned the Fascists, toppled the Communists.” He said, “We are now in the process of defeating the radical left, the Marxists, the anarchists, the agitators, the looters.”
His most zealous supporters embraced fantasies of Antifa invasions, deep-state coups, and a cabal of Satan-worshipping, pedophile “Democrat” billionaires. Opponents began to look irredeemable, beyond rehabilitation. In August, a popular pro-gun activist who goes by Colion Noir posted a video titled “Why New Gun Owners Should Fear a Joe Biden Presidency.” He told his audience, “They’ll be coming for the handguns. These aren’t new tactics—Hitler did the same thing in Germany.”
As the election approached, the threads converged in a toxic political sludge: the Boogaloo Bois, with their ironic memes and Hawaiian shirts, bracing for civil war; the record-breaking gun sales—the spirit of John Birch, in the era of AR-15s and 4Chan. The current culture of political warfare was about more than guns or fringe conspiracy theories. It was a mutant version of a mainstream ethos: a survival mind-set derived from a sense of zero-sum contests, in which only one side can prevail. The weaker the public felt, the more they grasped for gestures of force; as in Freeman’s portrait of antebellum violence, Americans were coming to believe that they could no longer afford to abide by the old norms. Freeman told me that violence was filling a void left by America’s eroded democracy: “The current moment has reams of people who feel unheard and unrepresented amidst multiple crises, people who have been stewing in that gripe for years. They sense that the tides of demographics and culture are turning against them.” She said, “Cloak that in the rhetoric of democracy, and it has a real appeal.”
Part of America’s predicament is that its political parties magnify the intensity of factions, rather than negotiating toward a compromise. Ideally, parties pull people into blocs that help bridge their racial, religious, and professional differences; it gives them an alternative collective identity. America’s parties do precisely the opposite: they compound and amplify the differences.
Hardly anyone who studies political violence expects the risk to subside after the election. In a survey conducted in September, a team of prominent political scientists found that an alarming number of Americans believe that violence “could be justified to advance their parties’ political goals.” Multiple studies show that the figure is at least one in six, twice what it was three years ago. “That’s a very significant jump,” Larry Diamond, of Stanford, who helped conduct the research, told me. “But it’s not just the numbers. It’s also the context that is so unsettling.” Diamond cited recent episodes—from white supremacists in Charlottesville to Trump’s exhorting the Proud Boys to “stand back and stand by.” Diamond went on, “The level of armaments that these people have, the stockpiles of military-style weaponry and body armor, the high-volume gun clips—there’s no precedent in American history for this, and that’s why I think the current era is more dangerous than anything we’ve seen in decades.”
What pushes people over the threshold from talking about violence to perpetrating it? Scholars have studied examples as diverse as student protests in Germany and Italy, riots outside the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago, and democracy protests in Hong Kong. In many cases, the point of ignition is government repression, real or imagined—a moment that inspires bystanders to join fellow-citizens in fighting the perceived abuse of authority. Trump has encouraged followers to see his political opponents as tyrants. On October 8th, federal and state authorities charged six men with plotting to kidnap Gretchen Whitmer, the governor of Michigan. She had been one of Trump’s most frequent targets of criticism; this spring, as protesters with guns demonstrated in the Michigan capitol, Trump tweeted out a militia slogan, “LIBERATE MICHIGAN!,” and called them “very good people.” The plotters had reportedly found one another online and through friends involved with the boogaloo movement. During a pro-gun rally in Lansing, on June 18th, some of the men talked about attacking the capitol. They met for tactical training and tried to make bombs. Adam Fox, the accused ringleader, told others, “I just wanna make the world glow, dude. . . . I don’t fuckin’ care anymore, I’m just so sick of it.”
Diamond, who has studied the workings of democracy in dozens of countries, recognized a disturbing pattern that led to violence: “All of these instances of pressing out the normative boundaries of what’s acceptable are the prelude to more daring, outrageous acts of political violence. Look at the climate in Israel in the months preceding the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin. You see the same rise in inflammatory rhetoric and the same erosion of the constraints. It’s a downward spiral that gave the signal to this violent right-wing extremist that it actually could be O.K.—even morally necessary—to assassinate the Israeli Prime Minister.”
What would it take to pull American politics out of the fire? To make democracy more functional and trustworthy? To make Americans feel, in any real sense, that we are all in this together?
One set of ideas focusses on bending the course of political culture—the habits and the attitudes that govern our encounters. In 2000, Robert Putnam, a Harvard political scientist, published “Bowling Alone,” a now classic account of a decline in “social capital,” the networks of trust developed through civic, social, and leisure organizations. A society that retreated to the sofa, he warned, risked losing the habits of democracy. (“TV-based politics,” he wrote, “is to political action as watching ‘ER’ is to saving someone in distress.”) Twenty years later, he saw that pattern of seclusion reach its logical extreme, as Americans fragmented in the solitude of the pandemic.
In a new book, “The Upswing,” written with Shaylyn Romney Garrett, Putnam identified a different thread of history, in which Americans have oscillated between individualism and community. He examined how the Gilded Age—a time, like the current one, of jarring inequality, political polarization, and cultural narcissism—gave way to the Progressive Era, when a broad swath of Americans called for fundamental reform. In that period, Americans created public high schools, labor unions, the federal income tax, and financial regulation. In 1912, all three major Presidential candidates—Teddy Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and Woodrow Wilson—adopted the progressive label, and all three supported anti-monopoly laws and a progressive income tax.
“One lesson we take from that period is that ideas matter—words matter,” Putnam told me. “All the stuff that Trump was spewing was pushing in exactly the opposite direction.” But Putnam and Garrett also highlighted the importance of a “moral awakening,” which encouraged those in office to reverse a trend toward “widespread selfishness.” In one encounter after another, inescapable realities had forced influential Americans to acknowledge the need for change. Frances Perkins, an architect of the New Deal, was a New York socialite and a local activist until 1911, when she witnessed the horror of the fire at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory, in which scores of women and girls jumped to their deaths. Others were shaken by the reporting of Ida B. Wells on Jim Crow, or of Upton Sinclair on meatpacking. Paul Harris, the president of the Rotary Club, was nudging businessmen to build public toilets and embrace “Service Above Self.” Garrett told me, “It was becoming unacceptable to continue in that mode of social Darwinism. It was a moral and cultural shift. And we think that’s becoming true today.”
Putnam said, “We don’t like the metaphor of a pendulum, because it swings back and forth by itself. In every case, people had to do it.” He went on, “After this election, fighting will break out within the Democratic Party, and I think it should, because that will reflect that broad coalition starting to push the envelope.”
In that spirit, another set of proposals emphasizes changes to laws and institutions. Commissions, as a rule, are not known for dispensing vital reading. But, in June, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences published the civic equivalent of the 9/11 Commission Report: a blueprint for avoiding another political catastrophe. The project began in 2018, with a bipartisan search for ways to revitalize modern democracy. The academy convened listening sessions across the country, and gathered a mountain of technical advice on ways to “birth for ourselves a sense of shared fate.” The result was “Our Common Purpose,” a set of thirty-one proposals, chosen with an eye for what could be plausibly achieved by 2026. Many of them sounded radical a few years ago but are increasingly mainstream, including a federal law to expand the House of Representatives (and, thus, the Electoral College) by at least fifty members; ranked-choice voting (which has been shown to reduce polarization) and multi-member districts; a term limit of eighteen years for Supreme Court Justices; and a universal mandate for voting, as exists in Australia and Belgium.
Some of the proposals would require moves by Congress or state legislatures, but others can be achieved with no legal changes. Remarkably, only one proposal—undoing parts of the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision—would require a constitutional amendment, and even that is not as radical as it might sound. Historically, Americans maintained the agility of democracy by amending the Constitution, on average, at least once a decade, until the pace stalled, half a century ago. Other than a minor amendment in 1992, to adjust congressional salaries, the last major change to the Constitution was in 1971, when the voting age was lowered to eighteen. Danielle Allen, a Harvard political theorist who helped lead the project, told me, “The conversation about the health of our political institutions and political culture is really just beginning.”
Allen and her colleagues also identified techniques of reviving the habits of citizenship. To break down social segregation, they call for expanding AmeriCorps and similar programs, to foster “an expectation of national service,” and establishing a National Trust for Civic Infrastructure, seeded by private and philanthropic money, which could expand the occasions “where Americans can encounter people different from themselves.” The United States already has more public libraries than Starbucks locations, but many of them need a burst of new resources, as do parks, museums, and performance spaces.
It would be hard to look at the 2020 election and not question the real-world effect of earnest studies of political culture. But Allen was hardly disappointed. On the morning after the election, she said, “There is a part of me that just feels quite exuberant about the election results, because of the level of turnout”—the highest in a hundred and twenty years. “People without college degrees increased their turnout. Young people increased their turnout. Communities of color were actively engaged.”
Reviving democracy, Allen said, hardly guarantees a simple notion of unity. Rather, it provides a legitimate forum for the harsh clashes that may be necessary for progress—what Frederick Douglass called the “awful roar.” The goal of American politics should not be “a world where everybody agrees with you,” Allen said. “That will never be the reward of life in a constitutional democracy. The reward is the chance to participate in free self-government. If you love that, then you can tolerate the hard work of ongoing, routine contestation with people who disagree with you.”
For four years, Trump has worked to equate disagreement with treason. He has banished loyal opposition and called for the criminal investigation of ordinary opponents. In “Audience of One,” the Times television critic James Poniewozik described Trump as the ultimate expression of “the cultural anger machine,” an endless source of violent imagery that combined the spirit of “Breaking Bad” and “The Sopranos” with the dopamine-delivery system of hurricane coverage. For decades, Poniewozik wrote, Trump had essentially been a cable-news channel in human form—“loud, short of attention span, and addicted to conflict.” In the White House, “he and cable had achieved the singularity, a meshing of man and machine.”
The Biden campaign could not have conveyed a more different spirit. “To make progress, we have to stop treating our opponents as enemies,” Biden said last Wednesday, as the steadily rising vote count suggested that he could win. “We are not enemies,” he said, echoing Lincoln’s first Inaugural Address. “I am campaigning as a Democrat, but I will govern as an American President.” It was one of his favored clichés, so familiar and soft that it usually slipped by unnoticed. But for a beleaguered people, bracing for battle, the sentiment was something close to radical. ♦
Read More About the 2020 Election
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