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America at the breaking point

The social upheaval of the 1960s meets the political polarization and institutional dysfunction of the present.

Anti-police brutality protestors demonstrate outside of a burning fast food restaurant in Minneapolis, on May 29.
John Minchillo/AP

In the early years of the Trump era, I was often asked if American politics had been this bad before. I always said the same thing. It has been so much worse. Think of the 1960s. John F. Kennedy and Malcolm X were assassinated within two years of each other. Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy were murdered within two months of each other. Riots set cities aflame. Domestic terrorists detonated bombs across the country. Freedom Riders were beaten and killed. White police officers turned dogs and hoses on black children. The Vietnam draft forced the nation’s young to war. The Democratic Party’s 1968 convention collapsed in violence. America was coming apart, with disagreements measured in bullets and blood.

But there was one thing the 1960s had, that we, today, do not: a political system designed to absorb conflict and find consensus, or at least stability. I do not seek to smother the age in nostalgia. That calm was often purchased at terrible moral cost, as in the union of Dixiecrats and New Deal Democrats that upheld segregation for decade after decade. But our divisions did not track our parties, and so they were muffled in our politics. What our political system could not solve, it suppressed. What it could no longer suppress, it sought to solve. When the Civil Rights Act passed, it did so with Republican votes, even as it was signed by a Democrat. Imagine legislation of such consequence passing without partisan valence today.

President Lyndon B. Johnson hands a pen to Rev. Martin Luther King after signing the historic Civil Rights Act in the East Room of the White House July 2, 1964.
AFP via Getty Images

The compromises of that era saved the country, but they ended that political system. The Civil Rights Act set off a realignment of the parties. Richard Nixon weaponized the fury his predecessors had sought to quiet. The parties slowly restructured: The Democratic Party became the party of liberals, its coalition racially and religiously diverse, its power centers urban. The Republican Party became the party of conservatives, its coalition white and Christian, its power centers rural and exurban.

This is the story of American political polarization. For a time, in the 20th century, our political coalitions did not echo our social divisions, our parties were mixed enough to see little benefit in sharpening the contradictions, and so the political system often calmed our conflicts. It did so imperfectly, and often unjustly, but America held together when it could have come apart easily.

Today, our political coalitions are our social divisions, and that changes everything. When there is a rift within a party, the incentive is to bridge it, or ignore it, to maintain cohesion and retain wavering voters. When the rift is between the parties, the incentive is to escalate, to sharpen differences and mobilize supporters. The technological and financial understructure of politics and media transformed in ways that reinforced the polarization of the parties, as nightly newscasts and daily newspapers gave way to the quivering nervous system of Twitter, the identitarian incentives of Facebook, the shouting on cable news.

These institutions are in feedback loops with each other, and what is fed back and forth, growing louder and louder, is conflict, collision, and fury. Donald Trump is that system summoned into human form, a social media savant and cable news favorite who rode the feedback loop of outrage into the White House. He understood our divisions better than we did, and that is seen, in our age, as a form of political genius.

But what makes Trump successful is what makes him dangerous: He knows only the one thing, and knows it too well. All he can see is division; all he knows is discord; all he can do is escalate. He is the King Midas of strife, turning the country he leads into the thing he believes we are, the thing he himself is.

President-elect Donald Trump prepares to step out of the US Capitol for his inauguration ceremony on January 20, 2017.
Mandel NganAFP via Getty Images

When we elected Donald Trump, we elected a political arsonist. The sole consolation of his presidency, in its early years, was that there was surprisingly little dry tinder. The economy hummed along, seemingly imperturbable. We faced few foreign crises. Domestic divisions remained mostly digital. This is not to dismiss real disasters or excuse cruel policies — from children thrown into cages to toxins dumped into our streams to the lethal mismanagement of Hurricane Maria — but it could have been worse.

Playacting civil war on Twitter, as the president often did, was never the nightmare scenario. The nightmare scenario was the social fracture and violent crises of the 1960s layered atop the political and media system of the 2020; the tests of presidential leadership that have defined past eras demanded of this leader, in this era. We weren’t there, and then, all of a sudden, we were.

We are.

The pandemic, fed by the Trump administration’s erratic and feckless response, has left more than 100,000 Americans dead — more than twice as many lives as we lost in the Vietnam War, and the count keeps rising. The economy is in free fall. The fabric of society has been cut, our culture is at war over masks and lockdowns, and the federal government has failed to chart a path to a safe future. We are a nation interrupted, aching for the normalcy we lost, unsure of the future we face.

Then came the lynchings, one after the other: Ahmaud Arbery, hunted down by gunmen on a truck. George Floyd, pinned to the ground by an armed agent of the state, dying slowly and publicly. Breonna Taylor, gunned down in her home. And now, the protests and riots. There is blood on the streets, cars mowing through crowds, buildings on fire, bodies being buried, police casually firing on the very people they are sworn to protect. And all of us, trapped at home, seeing things we can’t unsee, forced into the reckoning the country has always sought to delay. “There are too many things we do not wish to know about ourselves,” James Baldwin wrote. But in the age of smartphone cameras and viral videos, the knowledge is forced upon us. We see who we truly are, and we see who our leaders truly are.

“When the looting starts, the shooting starts,” Trump tweeted, in a missive so eager for violence Twitter hid it from most users. As he so often does, Trump made the subtext of the moment text: The line is not new. It is from 1967, when Miami police chief Walter Headley warned black communities that it would define his approach going forward. George Wallace, the segregationist Dixiecrat, echoed it in his 1968 presidential campaign.

The 1960s are here, again. We are at risk of coming apart. But this is a political system less practiced at holding us together, less capable of finding calm amid storms. Our divisions define our parties and our institutions crack under the strain; Congress can’t resolve small disputes, to say nothing of fundamental fractures. And our president is plainly eager for the storm to come. He does not know how to fight a virus, but he knows how to fight his countrymen.

“Big crowd, professionally organized, but nobody came close to breaching the fence,” he tweeted on Saturday. “If they had they would have been greeted with the most vicious dogs, and most ominous weapons, I have ever seen. That’s when people would have been really badly hurt, at least.”

But not to worry, Trump continued. “I was inside, watched every move, and couldn’t have felt more safe.” Perhaps he feels safe, live-tweeting from inside the presidential palace, but the rest of us don’t. We aren’t.

The clouds may yet part. Few Americans want violence. And we are still, I believe, a better country than our leader thinks we are. Cable channels and Twitter feeds pulse with violence, but the nonviolent remain the true story — they are the majority, the vast majority, risking their bodies for justice, sweeping up broken glass, absorbing blows from batons and inhaling tear gas simply as an act of solidarity. They make America great.

But I would be lying if I said I wasn’t scared. It would not take much more to truly set the country aflame. It is not just the news that has turned nightmarish in recent months. It is our lives, our reality. We are tired, scared, angry, hurt, mistrustful, and divided — and it is an election year. The kindling is everywhere. This is a country on the verge of war, and it so badly needs the leadership it doesn’t have, a president who truly wants peace.


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