Americans are divided along an extraordinary number of fault lines – political, gender, generational, ethnic, economic, and even geographic. Is it possible to be optimistic about the future of the United States when the country is so divided? The answer – unequivocally – is yes.
By J. Dan E. Maruska
Anno Trump. The United States is one year into the presidency of Donald Trump and both the political climate and the broader culture are divided – at times, bitterly so. This division has given different identities to entire regions; it defines states; it separates rural and suburban areas from inner-ring suburbs and cities; it even divides families to the point where some members don’t speak to one another. How could it be possible to be optimistic that Americans could feel a sense of togetherness or unity anytime soon?
Because we know our history, we have a clear understanding of our problems, and we know where we’re going.
The United States has confronted and triumphed over problems far more challenging than a divided political climate. In almost every difficulty this country has encountered, change has been accomplished through the same process: confrontation, setbacks, and progress. And this process has always been followed by itself on a smaller scale. Opposing individuals or groups react to progress, with smaller confrontations, smaller setbacks, and finally, enduring progress. We are nowhere near that final lasting progress for many groups, but most of the larger challenges have been won.
Our history shows how well we’ve mastered the ability to overcome difficulty, from the Revolutionary War, to the Civil War, to fights for equal rights for women, minority groups, GLBTQ individuals, religious equality, children’s rights, the environment, and animals. Our victory in the Revolutionary War was only for land-owning, white, Christian men. But that was progress. In 1792, men without property were allowed to vote in New Hampshire. Progress. But that wasn’t expanded to all men until 1856, 80 years after the signing of the Declaration of Independence. Setbacks. In 1807, New Jersey reaffirms a ban on the franchise for women. Setbacks. In 1828, Jewish men can now vote. Progress. In 1870, after the end of the Civil War, black men can now vote. Progress. But the ensuing decades brought poll taxes, impossible tests, and other discriminatory obstacles. Today they encounter voter I.D. laws in a small number of states. Setbacks. In 1920, women can finally vote – that’s less than 100 years ago. Progress.
In the 20th century, the United States endured two World Wars, the Great Depression, increasing Jim Crow, the internment of Japanese Americans in the 1940s, the McCarthyism of the 1950s, the culture wars of the 1960s, numerous assassinations and attempts, the tumult of Nixon’s election, the rancor of Vietnam, President Ford’s contentious pardon of Nixon and the stagflation of the 1970s, and then President George H.W. Bush’s statement in his 1989 inaugural that Vietnam “cleaves us still.” An incoming president characterized our nation as being divided two years before we won the Cold War. That’s remarkable.
In comparison, our current division is not a complex problem. It’s very simple – we have a generational bubble, the Baby Boomers, who are engaging in the final cultural conflicts that generation began in the 1960s. They constructed a fully-entrenched two-party system and a media environment that aids these parties. But because these problems are caused largely by a single age group, time is already changing the circumstance. And because this system was engineered, the coming generations who are opposed to it have already begun to deconstruct it. These changes can already be seen by comparing the relative sizes of the 408 2017 Women’s Marches around the world to the number of attendees to Mr. Trump’s inaugural address that same week.
And those coming changes will be decided by those who will be here – women and Millennials. Women will celebrate 2020 as the centennial of the 19th Amendment – their right to vote. And they’ll vote for equality, family planning options, healthcare, schools, poverty alleviation, equal pay, equal opportunities in the workplace and elsewhere – a more egalitarian society. The candidate women choose in the presidential election that year will win.
Millennials have already become the largest generation in America, and will be the largest voting bloc in the 2020 elections. Combined with members of Generation X, this is a coalition that is results-focused, data-oriented, and internationally-minded. Like all generations, these two are not without flaws. But their approaches are characteristics of a promising electorate.
The change from one enormous electoral bloc that has held power for decades to others with different values will produce remarkably different outcomes. As a result, in the coming decade, the United States will have more reflections of their values: more ranked-choice balloting and independent politicians at the state and national level, more remarkable improvements in ethnic diversity, and more politicians who know that reaching across the aisle will help them politically. These voters will take power and demand this degree of comity, and division in America will return to the fringes.