Senator Ben Sasse of Nebraska posed a provocative question on Twitter this weekend:
There's a deep divide among Americans (that we shld be able to debate without screaming at each other)... **is Trump mostly a CAUSE of our lack of national unity? OR... **is he mostly a CONSEQUENCE of our lack of national unity? Thoughts?
Sasse, who holds a Ph.D. in American history from Yale, already knows the answer. The Founders, building the entirely new American nation on a population of less than 4 million (so small it would barely rival Oklahoma today), expected the people to care more about their states than about their national government:
"Many considerations, besides those suggested on a former occasion, seem to place it beyond doubt that the first and most natural attachment of the people will be to the governments of their respective States." - Federalist Paper No. 46
National unity, it would seem, has been in short supply since the very beginning.
We Americans rarely demonstrate national unity without some common purpose(like winning the Cold War or going to the Moon). And even those things that tend to unite us (like our reaction to the attacks of September 11, 2001) often sew the seeds of their own destruction (like the division that resulted from the subsequent war in Iraq).
Being a characteristic that has been with America since birth, this lack of national unity can't really be called a defect. It's just the way we are.
But when lack of unity metastasizes into a state of disunity, then we find ourselves on the wrong track.
Put another way: It's one thing if Ohio goes one way on some issues while Alabama goes another as Oregon tries something else. We don't need to be unified in all things, and it's generally for the best if we exercise unity closer to home (at the state, district, or local levels) while experimenting vigorously as "laboratories of democracy".
But if we nationalize our political fights and just choose rival team identities -- like the "Red America/Blue America" divides that are so much a part of popular culture -- then we're at risk of some real self-harm. We don't have to be unified all the time, but we can't go on for very long being needlessly divided. "Divide and conquer" has endured as a strategic maxim for millennia, and for good reason.
As a country, we haven't had a common purpose in a while. The vacuum left behind primed many voters for the "MAGA" promise. But the promise is vague and ultimately empty: To "make America great again" is to say that our best days are in our past, and that we need to go backwards in order to be better.
America's best days always lie ahead. Always have, always will. We are a better, richer, more powerful, and more just country than we were at any time in the past -- so to be anything "again" would be to slip from our perch.
So the problem, it seems, will get worse -- at least, it will if we are content to long for a gauzy sense of past greatness. The 1953 Yankees aren't coming back, nor should we kid ourselves into thinking that we should trade much of anything else for 1953, either.
But not for want of common purposes we could rally around. If the past is any guide, America could find itself energetically united around any one (or more) of a number of tasks. We have historical precedents for ambitious projects in health (eradicating polio), exploration (the Apollo Program), infrastructure (Interstate highways), humanitarian relief (feeding Europe after WWI), technology (powered flight), education (land-grant colleges), development (rural electrification), diplomacy (the Marshall Plan and NATO), and vastly more.
What if we committed, as a country, to putting a single-minded effort into eradicating childhood cancers or sending humans to Mars? What if we undertook a big, measurable goal to would stretch our vision of the possible and give us something to cheer, together as a country, that would last longer than the next round of Olympic Games?
In the end, we have to acknowledge that for all the talk of "the American Dream", we've always depended more on "the American Action": Doing is far better than dreaming. The question before us now is what it will take to find and commit to a tangible goal worthy of national unity.