“A house divided against itself cannot stand.” Illinois Republican Senatorial candidate Abraham Lincoln used these words of Jesus Christ in a debate in Springfield, Illinois on June 16th , 1858, against his opponent, Democrat Stephen A. Douglas. Lincoln was referring to the divisions between the North and the South over slavery on the eve of the Civil War.
At that time in history, Lincoln’s assertion was considered radical. His law partner, William H. Herndon, saw his speech as “morally courageous but politically incorrect.” In other words, talk of a civil war in 1858 (almost three years before the Civil War) was not something most Americans were prepared to hear.
“Reflecting on it several years later, Herndon said the speech did awaken the people, and despite Lincoln’s defeat” in the Senate, “he thought the speech made him President” (“House Divided Speech”. abrahamlincolnonline.com).
Are we at a similar inflection point now?
Amy Chua, a Yale Law professor, makes this assertion in her article entitled “Divided we Fall: What Is Tearing America Apart?” in the July/August issue of “Foreign Affairs”. Chua compares and contrasts the perspectives of two authors: Ezra Klein, a progressive, in “Why We’re Polarized”, and Michael Lind, a non-populist conservative, in his book: “The New Class War: Saving Democracy from the Managerial Elite”.
According to a Klein survey, “America’s modern run of polarization has its roots in the civil rights era… in the Democratic Party choosing to embrace racial equality and the Republican Party providing a home to white backlash. By 2012, only nine percent of self-identified Republicans were nonwhite.”
As time passes, demographic changes will see a shift as whites become a minority. Klein states; “White Americans (and especially white men) increasingly feel that their status is threatened, and the quickest way to activate one’s identity is to threaten it.” Klein’s major concern is political polarization. To him, the 2016 presidential election “represented the triumph of threatened white Americans, egged on by partisan primaries and ‘identity journalism.’”
Lind, on the other hand, sees populism’s popularity as global, citing the Brexit vote, France’s “yellow vest” protests, and Italy’s election of nationalist politician Matteo Salvini.
For Lind, a conservative, there is an international class war occurring which “pits the working class against a small ‘overclass’ of ‘managerial elites’—university-educated cosmopolitan professionals and bureaucrats who make up somewhere between ten and 15 percent of the population but who enjoy outsize influence on government, the academy, and the economy.”
These managerial elites favor immigrants and minorities over native-born whites, Lind argues, and in the process, unions have been weakened by international competition and free trade, and wages have decreased while the elites’ wealth rises exponentially.
Lind also insists that blue-collar workers feel the elites are stalking them even outside the workplace, threatening their churches through recent social reforms (mainly the recent Supreme Court rulings that have affected the LGBTQ community).
As a result, the working class distrusts experts (part of the elite)—note those who refuse to wear masks and practice social distancing, and observe the attitudes and behaviors of those who turned up at the president’s political rally in Tulsa.
Lind’s perspective is monocausal—class warfare. He downplays the role of race, while Klein downplays the importance of class warfare. Klein is U.S. focused, while Lind is more global in view.
Lind’s solutions involve the end of the emphasis on college education and the importance of raising the value of blue collar workers. Power must shift away from Washington D.C. to smaller communities. These “credal congregations”— primarily churches, but also secular groups, should be given the power to oversee education and media. I think these steps benefit Republicans.
Klein favors the end of the Electoral College, ending the senatorial filibuster, and giving statehood to Washington D.C. and Puerto Rico, and Chua writes these changes favor the Democrats.
Chua continues, adding the COVID-19 pandemic has vindicated both authors: For Lind, the wealthy have retreated to their summer homes, meditating, playing golf, and working remotely, while the working class who were barely able to survive from paycheck to paycheck before the pandemic have paid a higher price in lost wages and disappearing jobs after it. Dependence on countries like China for PPEs and medicines vindicate the weaknesses of the progressive’s emphasis on globalism.
For Klein, the split is along partisan lines, which encourages overt racism and rebellion against authority. Disputes arise over when lockdown orders should be eased. Yet, minorities have suffered a higher infection and death rate in the pandemic compared to the whites.
According to Chua, “the pandemic has revealed that that the United States is reaching a systemic breaking point. Amid the chaos, it increasingly seems that the country might be on the road to a violent political reckoning.” Are we again on the cusp of a “house divided” era?
Like the parable where blind men feel an elephant and draw conclusions about the entire animal, so both authors clearly “see” segments of our country, while missing others. If we are to avoid another civil war, it will be necessary to listen and consider the perspectives of both sides.