People whose families did not arrive in America yesterday or the day before yesterday are likely to discover, some time or another, among their parents’ and grandparents’ effects small, faded campaign buttons advocating Coolidge for President, or FDR, and later larger and more elaborate buttons promoting Eisenhower-Nixon, or Stevenson-Kefauver, Kennedy-Johnson, Goldwater-Miller, Reagan-Bush, and perhaps Clinton-Gore. Since about the mid-90’s, however, the button has been disappearing from American political campaigns, replaced by the bumper sticker—which so far in the current election season seems much less prevalent than it was in 2012. Its absence can be explained partly by the fact that 2016 is the Year of the Unpopular Candidate; yet surely there is more to the thing than that. In 1964 many supporters of Barry Goldwater were dissuaded from affixing Goldwater stickers to their vehicles for fear of possible sabotage, and it could be the same is true of enthusiasts for Donald Trump. As for Mrs. Clinton, who has no enthusiasts whatever, the dearth of Hillary stickers on the road may simply reflect the latest poll (as of this writing) indicating that only 36 percent of the American public likes and trusts her. But, once again, that is obviously not the full story.
When it comes to politics—and, increasingly, other things as well—Americans today are like Mae West: They don’t show their good points to strangers. Until relatively recently, politics was a staple of conversation in America at dinner parties and social gatherings. No longer—not, at least, until each person assures himself that everyone else present shares his own political assumptions. Tocqueville would be astounded—and feel himself and his famous book confounded. Today, politics is as much a taboo subject in polite company as sex was for polite Victorians, though liberals seldom hesitate to take advantage when possible of their presumed intellectual, cultural, social, and political dominance to flaunt their opinions rudely and aggressively in the faces of nonliberals. And if one’s political stance is either a red flag or a liability in social situations, in anonymous ones (like driving on the highway) advertising one’s candidate to the car behind is a futile act in a society where everyone has fixedly and defiantly chosen his side already.
In an op-ed article in the New York Times (August 31), Thomas L. Friedman asks “Who are we—the voters? . . . Are we all just Shiites and Sunnis now?” Friedman is suggesting that the United States has divided into two political tribes, neither of which is willing to compromise from a conviction either of strength or of weakness. Friedman blames what he calls the resulting scorched-earth politics squarely on the Republicans, who “during the Obama presidency pioneered and perfected” the art. “It will be sad,” he concludes, “if center-right Republicans conclude that their only problem is Donald Trump, and that once he’s gone the G.O.P. will be theirs again. They either have to become conservative Democrats or redefine a responsible center-right G.O.P.—with a different base.” This is nonsense, with regard to both the Republican Party and the country as a whole.
First, Friedman’s comparison of the hostility between Shi’ites and Sunnis with the anger Republicans and Democrats feel for each other is inexact. Adherents of the two religious sects at least share in common, as a basis, the Muslim faith. Republicans and Democrats increasingly have no shared basis at all—indeed, they are nearly separate species. And the explanation for this almost unbridgeable chasm is not the intransigency of a “reactionary” party. It is that modern liberalism in the last few decades, represented by roughly half the American people, has simply got up and walked away from the other half, from the historical America, from human reality, and from metaphysical truth. Those whom James Kalb calls “advanced” liberals deny that America is really a country at all, that the American people have an historic identity, and that marriage is exclusively a heterosexual institution; they affirm that the nuclear family is constrictive, outmoded, and humanly unnecessary, that sexual differentiation is a matter of preference and identity rather than of biology, that morality is a relative concept, that theism of any sort is irrational, that all religions (but Christianity in particular) are aggressive and oppressive, that men are capable of self-creation and self-perfection, and that, consequently, man is the measure and the meaning of the universe—and demand that lesser mortals humbly accept their absurdist propositions and the consequences that follow from acting upon them.
Modern liberals outrageously flout “a decent respect to the opinions of mankind” invoked by the Declaration of Independence, to which injury they add the insult of blaming mankind’s defenders for the intellectual, social, and political “divisiveness” that follows naturally from their irresponsible behavior—the same result one imagines would have ensued had the inmates of Bedlam escaped detention and taken over the city of London. Liberalism, ideologically and institutionally, has seceded from the United States as surely—and much more completely—as did the Confederacy from the so-called Union. What nerve of liberals to demand, in angry, moralistic tones, that nonliberals rejoin the union they themselves have wrecked—and rejoin it on liberalism’s own terms!
Given what is at stake, however, it is most unlikely that America’s second civil war will end in a second Appomattox of the sort Mr. Friedman and his fellow liberals so smugly demand.