Is the US learning to live with division? I don’t put this thought forward with much confidence. I will regret it when pandemonium flares again. But the midterm elections of last November passed more or less without incident. The end of the federal right to abortion, an affront to liberal America, has not sparked civil strife. The street protests of 2020 haven’t spread to become the ambient noise of the times.
Small mercies, true, but not ones you would have counted on a while back. Mark them. History consists of what doesn’t happen, not just what does.
Even if we confine ourselves to the actual, there are glints in the dark. Take the applause that broke out among Republicans in parts of Joe Biden’s State of the Union address this month. Or the bipartisan legislation passed in the last Congress. It is hard to flag these things without incurring the charge of complacency. So, to stipulate: no, Red and Blue America aren’t saying, “Oh, come here, you” to each other and skipping hand-in-hand around maypoles. Polls continue to reveal a nation that is divided and that thinks of itself as such. It is just that division — even, at times, violent division — is something the US might be coming to manage.
A few things are helping to turn an acute condition chronic. One is Biden himself. White, old, non-Ivy League and, with apologies to his hometown of Scranton, non-metropolitan, no Democratic president since Jimmy Carter has been so superficially digestible for conservatives. He also deals in the big-government populism that Donald Trump invoked in the abstract without enacting in law.
The infrastructure spree, the industrial subsidies: this is politically ambiguous stuff, as hard for jingoist Republicans to oppose as for statist Democrats. The right can’t “other” Biden as it did Barack Obama and Bill Clinton. He is so confounding an opponent that Republicans have turned ever more on themselves, which is worse for the party than it is for the republic.
At 80, Biden can only be a fleeting balm. A more lasting one is China. The US has the unifying external rival now that it has missed since the fall of the Soviet Union. Yes, Republicans fault Biden for taking his time to down a Chinese balloon over terra Americana. But such tactical bickering is pro forma. The point is that both parties face the same way on, bar climate change, the largest question of the century. Kevin McCarthy, the Republican Speaker of the House of Representatives, is untribal when China is the subject. Partisanship feeds on low stakes. The Newt Gingrich congressional Republicans, the strident turn in cable news: it all started when the US had nothing exterior to detain it in the 1990s.
So, we have a personal factor (Biden) and a structural one (China). How neat and journalistic. But also how lacking in the element of mystery that tends to govern these things.
At the end of the 1960s, the US was bound for total civic breakdown. There were political assassinations and riots from which some cities have never recovered. Whereas the military stands out today as the one binding institution — the toast of Red and Blue voters alike — soldiers back from Vietnam inspired far from universal goodwill. Imagine a nation so troubled that Lyndon Johnson, as tenacious a seeker and hoarder of power as democratic politics has known, gives up its highest office without a fight.
The breakdown never came. And not for any lack of precipitating events: Watergate might have done it, or the Opec oil crisis. Instead, by 1984, 49 states were voting the same way (for Ronald Reagan). The Great Moderation in economics and politics began.
The taming of the 1960s chaos is hard to attribute to any policy. It is hard to credit to any act of leadership. Intellectuals remain incurious about what happened. There is lots to read and watch on the strife — on the fire last time — but not on its petering out. Was it that the baby boomers, a generation vast in number, entered their thirties and settled down?
For whatever reason, the crisis burnt out. Or was sublimated into milder forms. The year 1968 was the peak of something, not the start of it. America’s challenge is to ensure that the Capitol siege of 2021 comes to be seen in the same way.
One test of a civilised country is whether a citizen can go days at a time without thinking about politics. Ask yourself, wherever you live, how often US politics enters your thoughts nowadays. Indifference, more than the bridges and the upgraded power grid, more than Made In America, might turn out to be the central achievement of the Biden years.