We talk a lot about polarization in American society today as if it is something new. But in fact polarization has existed since the founding of the country. Historically the social tensions involved tend to build over time until some cataclysmic event erupts and serves to temporarily relieve the pressure.
The American Revolution wasn’t just a war for independence from Britain. It was essentially a civil war between the Loyalists that wished to stay with the Crown and the colonists that wished to go their own way. Some even call it the first American Civil War. The colonial population was polarized in the extreme at the time and when war broke out, it was as much a civil conflict of neighbor against neighbor as it was a conflict of armies. When Cornwallis surrendered and it was clear that the English had truly lost the war, a period of what we might call ethnic cleansing took place but it was political rather than ethnic in nature. The colonists that had stayed loyal to the crown mostly lost everything. Their lands were stolen, they lost their livelihoods, and most were forced to flee and leave the newly formed country. So, via the war and the “cleansing” that took place in its aftermath, the social tensions around the issue of loyalism or revolt were resolved by force.
Once the United States were formed, attempts to write a Constitution revealed that the next major fault line that existed, on either side of which we began to increasingly polarize was slavery. Polarization became so severe that pro and anti slavery militias terrorized the disputed territories in the West and a member of Congress was literally beaten with a cane on the floor of the Senate by another member of the Senate during a debate.
Eventually this polarization became so severe that the slave states seceded and our Civil War (or the War of Northern Aggression) resulted. While the victory of the North did not at all remove the tensions that had caused the rift in the first place, the deaths of hundreds of thousands and the total devastation of the Southern economy made large scale resistance to the Federal Government impossible. Instead, from the moment the war ended, another war, fought as a virtual terrorist resistance to Reconstruction was waged. Assassination of Northern officials, lynchings of freed Blacks attempting to enter leadership roles, burning of churches, and the growth of the Ku Klux Klan as a powerful underground resistance showed a South defeated in war but collectively unwilling to submit to the kind of social change demanded by the North. With the Presidency of Andrew Johnson, a Southerner, the occupation of the South was ended and any real attempt to enforce the reforms of the Reconstruction Era were over.
In the post Civil War period, we have continued polarization along racial lines. Klan membership peaked in the late 1920’s declining only after scandals among the leadership lost them support, not because racial tensions were any less. Additionally, the rapid industrialization that took place after the Civil War coupled with the huge growth in our urban areas began to make the polarization between rich and poor more obvious and increasingly erupted into violence. The Robber Barons and the corporations they owned had their own private armies to break strikes and violently oppose Union organizing. The government functioned almost as an arm of these private interests with local and state law enforcement and even Federal military personnel being called in to break strikes and arrest and sometimes even kill Union strike organizers.
Throughout the late 1800’s and early 1900’s repeated financial collapses created untold hardships for the unemployed and working poor. By the post WWI period there was real fear that this economic social polarization would erupt into outright revolution. With the total collapse of the international economic structure that began the Great Depression, it was only radical action by the Federal Government and FDR, the President, that saved the country from outright revolution.
Once again, it took a cataclysmic set of violent events to temporarily relieve the pressures of both racial and economic polarization pulling the country apart. WWII was a hugely unifying event. Perhaps the greatest on in US history. It was really the only truly democratic war our country has fought, with the sons of the rich fighting alongside the sons of the poor. The unifying effect of the war combined with the GI Bill and tremendous economic growth after the war pushed economic injustice temporarily to the back burner but Black GIs returning to the South encountered a concerted effort to put them back in their place and the Civil Rights Movement was the result of their unwillingness to do so.
For a time, “the Movement” lead by Dr Martin Luther King allowed these racial tensions to express themselves non-violently. But progressively he moved towards a more radicalized position in which he viewed the Vietnam War, the class based economic injustice inherent in the system, and issues of racial equality as being completely intertwined. J Edgar Hoover called King the most dangerous man in America.
Racial tensions and a growing awareness that they could not be considered separately from issues of economic injustice combined with raised expectations on the part of minority veterans who had served in Vietnam radicalized many minority young men and women leading them to feel that Dr. King’s non-violence was too incremental, too slow, to deliver real equality and social justice. With the assassination of Dr King, a seismic eruption took place. Every major city in the US was burning, you had barbed wire and machine guns on the Capitol building steps. Within a couple of years, the leaders of the major radical groups like the Black Panthers, American Indian Movement, etc were all underground, dead, or in jail.
The end of the Vietnam War signaled the end of mass protest in the US. The pressures for social upheaval were diminished for a time once again. Nothing like the scale of the old civil rights and anti-war protests was seen until the WTO protests in 1999 and the Occupy Movement protests of 2011 and 2012. Now the Black Lives Matter Movement is growing and seem to be the latest iteration of a movement geared towards civil rights and social justice for our minority community.
One can see the social and economic tensions of all of these unsolved issues creating polarization and a movement away from the political center on both the Left and the Right. The pressure for another seismic social upheaval are mounting. The 2016 election has revealed the fault lines in both political parties and no one can really tell what the outcome will be. The campaign will inevitably escalate the the tensions and the polarization.
What is certain is that the forces of wealth inequality, institutionalized racism, religious intolerance, bias against LGBT persons, fear of terror, and nativist anti-immigration are forming a reactionary movement fighting to undo virtually all of the social progress the country has made since the 1930’s. Donald Trump has managed to make himself into the spokesman and Presidential candidate for these forces.
The Progressive wing of the Democratic Party has proven to be such an unexpected powerhouse of a movement that only its carefully engineered primary system with its control of the super delegates has given them the ability to place the candidate of their choice, in this case Hillary Clinton, in the nominee spot at the upcoming convention.
While liberals are largely focused on having a Democrat win the election. It is important to realize that the social tension, the increasing polarization that has created our political climate of the moment will not go away; that regardless of which candidate wins, the culture war continues and will most likely escalate. In American history, the kind of polarization that we see has always resulted at some point in some sort of cataclysmic event that once again dissipates that pressure. The normal political process doesn’t do so, incremental change never does so. It is almost always some sort of massive eruption like war, or riots, some sort of violent upheaval, or perhaps the fear thereof, that dissipates these tensions and restores some measure of balance to the system.
So, no one should think that this election is a solution of any kind, that it is the end of some effort to create change. Instead, I believe it should be viewed as spark that will produce some wild fire of violent upheaval between the polarized forces of Right and Left. The tensions have been building for some time. We are overdue. The American Revolution and our Civil War both represented cataclysms that dissipated our tensions for a time. The New Deal and WWII both served to dissipate these tensions as well. But the unresolved social and economic issues that have existed since the founding of the nation are still unresolved. The Red State Map (of the Red / Blue State geography) still closely resembles the map of the Confederate States and the disputed territories from before the Civil War.
While we see developing activist movements on the Left like the Occupy Movement, Black Lives Matter, etc we also see membership in white supremacist organization on the rise. Participation in right wing militia groups, the so-called Patriot Movement, is also at a peak. It looks as if we are headed for some new cataclysm of conflict that will once again restore some balance. This election, which ever candidate wins, will not do so.