Our waitresses’ eyes lit up when she learned I’d spent part of my upbringing in Alabama when my father’s last stop in his 20-year military career was at the Air University at Maxwell Air Force Base in Montgomery.
The waitress, as we soon learned, was an Alabama native herself who’d fled to the colder climes (and chillier people) of Massachusetts after becoming pregnant her senior year in high school.
It was obvious from just our brief conversation with this young woman, who was studying at a local community college to become a teacher, that she was homesick for the South and wanted to get back where she “belonged” just as fast as she could. “Belong” is the right word because, with the possible exception of New England, of all the regions I’ve had the opportunity to sample thanks to our family’s frequent uprooting, the South seemed to have the strongest sense of itself as a single, distinctive community with all of the pluses and minuses such an identity entails.
The legendary “Southern Hospitality” which makes newcomers and natives alike feel so welcome is a real and palpable thing. It’s one of the features of the South and its people I liked best during our 12-year stay "deep in the Heart of Dixie.”
But like any tight-knit community, the South’s welcoming embrace sometimes comes wrapped in a suffocating insularity that reserves its storied generosity for kin folk or those who in other ways fit in.
And it’s this double-edged sword which is at the core of America’s present political crisis. It’s a crisis which manifests itself as an inability to govern as popular elections no longer seem to matter when matched against the heels the losing side digs deep into the sand when it refuses to be bound by the decisions of a victorious party whose legitimacy the losers reject.
Respect for the outcomes of elections and a grudging acceptance for the legitimacy of the other side are the baseline prerequisites of democracy. Yet, more than 150 years after the Civil War, groups like the League of the South continue to foment sedition while talking about their region as if it were “enemy occupied territory.” And even Southerners outside the neo-Confederate fringe often think of themselves as belonging to a separate community, if not an entirely different country.
Listen closely to the way Southerners talk about the Constitution, for instance, and you will not encounter the document that brought 13 separate state communities together to form a single and more perfect union. Rather, you will hear about a charter that guarantees a constitutional right for people to stay apart.
The First Amendment’s guarantee of freedom of association, in this view, coexists uneasily alongside an equal and opposite right NOT to associate with people who other people find offensive – even if the form this offensiveness takes is discrimination in jobs or access to public accommodations. .
And so it’s no surprise that the election of 1994 was a turning point in American politics as the South’s exclusionary identity-politics first took control of the Republican Party and later Congress itself with the Southern reactionary triumvirate of Newt Gingrich, Tom Delay and Dick Armey at the helm.
It’s easy to exaggerate the extent to which Republicans and Democrats worked together in the past in the spirit of bi-partisan comity. Sentimental tales of Ronald Reagan and Tip O’Neill drinking beers together after-hours are exaggerated. But there is no denying that the present curse of gridlock, obstruction and dysfunction is unprecedented.
And largely to blame for this situation is the fact that that the GOP is now a coalition of wealthy plutocrats and white Christian populists whose only point of agreement is a shared antipathy toward -- not just the federal government -- but an American nation-state itself. The Republican Party is in rebellion against a country that would ask its constituencies to compromise their economic interests or cultural orthodoxies for the sake of domestic tranquility and the common good -- which they refuse to do.
And what is happening to the United States is part of a much larger worldwide phenomenon ripping nations apart as tribal identities of race and religion and even class continue to reassert themselves at the expense of what Abraham Lincoln called the “mystic cords of memory” that once linked the American community together.
The mild-mannered Washington Post columnist, E.J. Dionne is one of the foremost students of this fundamental breakdown in American governing customs and traditions. In a recent Post column, the author of Our Divided Political Heart says the world’s democracies face a peculiar and potentially perilous contradiction where the rise in partisanship coincides with the decline in public trust for the traditional parties that once resolved political disagreements, thus undermining faith in public endeavors of any kind, even politics and self-government.
In Europe, he says, “anger is the dominant emotion” as movements on the far right and left gain traction among voters concerned about immigration and other demographic changes that create “social and cultural tremors.”
During Britain’s national election on May 7, Dionne notes that the establishment Conservative and Labour parties hemorrhaged votes to the nativist Independence Party that is critical of both immigration and the European Union.
And in the US, he says, partisan splits have rarely been so deep or acrimony across party lines this severe as “one of the most important trends in American politics over the past several decades has been the rise of negative partisanship in the electorate.”
This occurs, says Dionne, when partisans perceive supporters of the opposing party as being “very different from themselves in terms of their social characteristics and fundamental values.”
Social bonds have become so frayed that Princeton historian Daniel T. Rogers felt compelled to write a book called Age of Fracture in which he said “identities become fluid and elective” and the dominant tendency of our times is toward “disaggregation” instead of “consolidation.”
This is a big problem for self-government, says Dionne, “since aggregating sustainable majorities is the first task of politicians in democratic countries.”
One of the biggest causes of this “disaggregation” might be the emergence of a “winner-take-all” global economy that has produced unprecedented concentrations of wealth in fewer and fewer hands, a severe and ever-growing wage gap between rich and poor and the withering away of the job securities that once defined the American middle-class.
Forced to defend an economy that no longer works for everyone, the top 1% have used their enormous wealth to hire (or buy) the Republican Party, which is now engaged in a “never surrender” defense of their client’s riches against latent threats such as the Occupy Wall Street protests a few years ago.
Another cause for concern is the rise of fundamentalism and religious ultra-orthodoxy that Dionne says “has taken much of the West by surprise.”
For most of the 20th century, he says secular and liberal nation-builders fought a two-front war against Western imperialists abroad and religious traditionalists at home. Once the new states won their independence from Western colonial powers, those supposedly backward true-believers began to fight to re-impose the faiths of their forebears, said Dionne.
At the extreme, this religious pushback took the form of the Islamic State and al-Qaeda. Yet even in its more benign forms, “ultra-orthodoxy is also on the rise in democratic countries with long traditions of religious tolerance,” says Dionne.
This is what is happening in Israel, India and Algeria, says the political philosopher Michael Walzer, who’s charted the history and trajectory of national liberation movements and wonders why the architects of these secular states were unable to marginalize religion to the private sphere but instead produced a backlash, “calling forth often radical forms of religious assertion.”
National liberation, he writes, “is a secularizing, modernizing and developmental creed” that seeks to free countries not only from outside colonization but also from the internal “burdens of old religious understandings.”
But some people are not always eager to be freed from such “burdens,” says Dionne, as attempts to liberate them from the dead hand of history, orthodoxy and the rigid hierarchies that go with them “quickly turns into a cultural war between the liberators and what we can call the traditionalists,” writes Walzer.
Thus, while liberals see themselves as egalitarians and great emancipators who want everyone to be treated the same within a single community, traditionalists see liberals as “elitists” who seek to undermine “their” communities by “imposing” liberty and freedom upon unwilling populations. And so the reassertion of religious loyalties following political independence “were fueled by the resentment that ordinary people, pursuing their customary ways, felt toward those secularizing and modernizing elites, with their foreign ideas, their patronizing attitudes, and their big projects.”
Look at Bruce/Caitlyn Jenner controversy for example. Both sides see the other as the aggressor. Liberals say conservatives are imposing old standards to deny Jenner her individual freedom while conservatives say liberal "elites" are trying to aggressively change their culture.
While the ideologies of today’s fundamentalists and ultra-orthodox are rooted in ancient or medieval ideas, says Walzer, “these movements are, in a peculiar way, thoroughly modern.” Their resistance to secularization “soon becomes ideological and therefore also new: fundamentalism and ultra-orthodoxy are both modernist reactions to attempts at modernist transformation.”
President Obama had the right message when he first campaigned on the themes of national healing and reconciliation. But he may have been uniquely unsuited to be the messenger of this unifying theme since he represented exactly those changes one side is determined to prevent at all costs.
It remains to be seen which candidate, if any, picks up this issue in 2016, which may be the most important one we face since it affects the future of American self-government.