The nation has never been so divided! We’ve lost our civil discourse and our politics have devolved to a witches’ brew of personalities, innuendo, ideology, and rumor, complete with absurd hyperbole, personal attacks and religious extremism. Or so we keep hearing from the hand-wringing scolds on both the Left and the Right.
During the campaign they questioned the candidate’s manliness, sanity, patriotism, courage, and religion. They mocked the candidate’s racial identity and sexual morality, accusing him of keeping a harem and smuggling prostitutes into the White House. They warned he wanted to remake America in a European way.
They called the candidate “one of the most detestable of humankind” who was “poisoning humanity,” and that his supporters were bloodthirsty, godless fakes who “had roused up ‘discontented hotheads’ and would reduce the country to a land of groans, and tears, and blood.”
The clergy were deeply involved in trying to influence the vote, saying the candidate was “a manifest enemy to the religion of Christianity, in a Christian nation, would be an awful symptom of the degeneracy of that nation, and a rebellion against God” who would burn all the Bibles and produce “a curse upon the Earth.” A vote for him was a vote against God, and if he won the presidency “Murder, robbery, rape, adultery, and incest will be openly taught and practiced, the air will be rent with the cries of distress, the soil will be soaked with blood, the nation black with crimes.”
The terms of the election were big government vs state’s rights, morality vs debauchery, religion vs atheism, legal government vs chaos, good vs evil. They believed they were fighting for the very existence of the nation, that they alone represented “real” Americans.
Such was the presidential election of 2012? No, the election of 1800 — the very first presidential election of this nation.
Not only does our discourse sound about as civil now as it did then, but we’ve actually taken huge steps forward as a culture. Then, homosexuals were put to death (Jefferson tried to “liberalize” the punishment to “just” castration); today, they serve in Congress. Then, blacks lived in slave quarters; today, the White House. Then, women could not vote; today, they vote on the Supreme Court. Then, you could get prison time for criticizing the president, you could go to debtor’s prison, and 200,000 children worked 50 to 70 hours a week in factories and coal mines, often surrounded by barbed wire fences. Then, 50% of adult free males in the US, and 40% of families, possessed no wealth other than clothing, tools, a little furniture, and perhaps some farm animals (and there was no safety net); today, 15% of Americans live in poverty.
Just 60 years later, our political discourse wound up slaughtering 750,000 of us, mutilating, starving and raping tens of thousands of us, and destroying our homes, farms, businesses and cities by the thousands.
Never so divided? Never so uncivil? Please. Do we have a lot more work to do? Of course. But to declare we’ve sunk to new lows is to deny both the brutal ugliness of our history and the profound progress we have made.
So, get a grip Chicken Little. Civilization is not collapsing. We have been far more divided. Our political discourse is eerily similar to what it was at the start. And the arc of history continues to bend toward justice.