Working through H.W. Brands’ compelling study of Ulysses S. Grant, The Man Who Saved the Union, a reader might easily see the same challenge facing our next president. Over the years, we’ve heard much about polarization in American politics. What so many have failed to perceive is the zone beyond polar, one that invites our disunion: the sharding of America.
We can see this possibility, perhaps, if we shed our political blinders, because most of us will need no polls, no studies, no white papers to validate what our own eyes and ears reveal to us in our everyday life experiences.
The other day, I saw a photo somewhere of a pair of college students, a boy and a girl, together on a shaded park bench. The caption beneath the photo ran, “The New Relationship.” Nice. Spring. Young romance. Except that if you looked just a little closer, each of them was staring into their personal device, not into each other’s eyes.
At the bus stop, the lunch table at school or work, dinners out, meetings of managers and executives, breakfasts with friends, one or more of those present will reach for their device and commune with it, discreetly or not. In some venues, a certain etiquette has developed that allows mutually agreeable disassociation. At board meetings, for example, members simply scan their cell below tabletop. Whether it’s a relationship with one’s phone or other personal device, it seems that whatever is on the screen, big or small, is far more appealing—and of greater value?—than the other persons present.
What is alarmingly true on an individual, personal level is similarly true on a much broader scale. American society used to be the so-called melting pot—E pluribus Unum. Italian, German, Polish-Americans and all other hyphenations of the past two hundred years have dropped the “dash” and became, simply, Americans. They had no choice: they began living next to each other, working together, marrying. We became one large, amorphous group with a single language and nationality.
Without electronic enticements, however, we have begun to shard ourselves, and we are the only ones to blame. To the extent we have failed to fully assimilate those with African or Latin ancestries has encouraged their disconnectedness from what so many earlier generations struggled to make this country great. Their examples of publicly funded separateness, thoroughly disparate despite The Great Society’s vision, have kindled from the majority and large minorities, slices and splinters aplenty. Mis-gendered persons and Muslims should have rights, to name just two examples, but should their rights trump those of others? The phenomenon has spilled the melting pot and morphed us into the new metaphor of the tossed salad. We each retain our individual exclusiveness all in one big bowl. Has no one noticed that the tomatoes never marry the cucumbers?
So now comes the 2016 presidential race and once again, we will all be battered and divided—and sharded—by politicians pandering to the demands of increasingly finite groups of Americans, so much so that candidates may tailor their remarks to the specific block or rural road on which we live. US Grant had to re-forge the nation with the steel of arms. Our next president must shun yesterday’s politics of division, self-promotion, and greed, and lead us to renewed purpose.
What so many of us—Indies, Dems, GOPers—all want is a candidate who reminds us what we can be for each other, that the ties that bind us are much stronger than the tendrils of discord. The right candidate will lead us to that City on the Hill, where, speaking with one tongue, we pledge allegiance, under God, to one national culture of inclusion and respect for our differences, whatever they may be.
Warren, author of Turnover, is a political commentator who lives and writes in western Pennsylvania’s Amish country.