Much of the culture and politics of the 20th century were defined by fear. In the early 1900s, Americans found themselves caught in the middle of a Euro-centric war that cost the lives of millions of people. In the mid-1900s, Nazis ravaged Europe, the Japanese enslaved much of Asia, and Americans were once again called to battle the forces of tyranny. For most of the remainder of the 20th century, the United States confronted the spread of communism and lived under the cloud of a possible nuclear war with the Soviet Union.
But as much as external, foreign-borne fears marked the 20th century, Americans in the new millennium have found themselves growing increasingly fearful of domestic threats. Foreign crises still exist, of course, but people are more concerned than ever that their own countrymen are the greatest threat to peace and prosperity, with both liberals and conservatives blaming one another for the nation’s problems.
Those fears were once again revealed in the wake of the tragic attack by a white nationalist on Saturday in Charlottesville, Virginia. Despite widespread bipartisan condemnation, many on the left alleged the attack is symbolic of a much larger national problem with racism, one that a multitude of liberals believes is intimately tied to Donald Trump’s election success in 2016.
Although there is no evidence whatsoever the overwhelming majority of Trump voters are racist, fear has poisoned the minds of many on the left, and the fervor with which mainstream media outlets have actively cried racism, sexism, transgenderism — among many other allegations — has simultaneously thrown gasoline on liberals’ hatred of all people even remotely tied to Trump and undermined their credibility with virtually everyone else.
It’s now to the point that even legitimate critiques by the left of Trump and the Republican Party are being ignored by the right, which is so wrapped up in the injustice of the many Clinton scandals, the media’s refusal to properly question the outrageous actions of the Obama administration, and other liberal lies and schemes that it can’t fairly evaluate the current administration. This path will only lead to further division, anger, and, eventually, violence.
Although it’s rarely explicitly stated by either side, at the heart of the present crisis is the fear that one side will force the other to live under unacceptable, unconscionable conditions. For every faction, those conditions are different. Social conservatives fear they’ll be forced to abandon their religious beliefs to adopt the socially acceptable “tolerance” of the left. Various minority groups fear persecution. Fiscal conservatives fear a financial collapse and economic chaos. Many social justice liberals fear millions of impoverished people will be left to suffer and die on the streets.
Sharp ideological, cultural and religious differences have always been a part of America’s history, and as the United States experienced during the Civil War, these differences have on occasion led to violent divisions. However, at the heart of the American dream, which was espoused by the Founding Fathers, has always been the understanding that generally speaking, groups of people (organized under states) should be free to live in the way they desire, so long as no individual’s constitutional rights were infringed.
It is this belief, which was enshrined in the 10th Amendment, that has in recent decades evaporated and led to the widespread fear we have today. In an attempt to survive two world wars, the Great Depression, and the Cold War, Americans slowly gave away their state sovereignty in exchange for a stronger, more unified national government. Even though these looming national threats have disappeared, our 20th century political structure remains firmly in place, except now most people are no longer distracted by foreign dangers. Instead, people have suddenly realized they are surrounded by “tyrants” and are only one or two elections away from being subjected to laws they find unacceptable, which is why presidential elections have become in recent years win-or-die affairs.
These fears are, in many respects, not without merit, but the answer isn’t to simply win more elections — the strategy the political parties have endorsed — or for one group to coerce all its philosophical adversaries — an impossible scenario. Rather, the only hope for the survival of a unified America is the acceptance of our differences and the realization that each individual state should have as much power as possible to control its own destiny, allowing individuals to vote with their feet and find comfort in like-minded communities.
This model has numerous advantages, not the least of which is that the successes and failures of Americans’ varying ideologies will be exposed by real-world results. If liberal policies work (they don’t), we’ll know it, because liberal states will enact the reforms they truly desire. If free-market policies leave people worse off (they don’t), we’ll know it, because conservative states will surely pass pro-liberty reforms.
Perhaps most relevant to the current political environment, the immense fear that continues to grip the country would subside under such a system, as people are given the ability to live as they choose. There will surely be controversial national issues, such as immigration and foreign affairs, but people who feel afraid would generally be empowered with the ability to move to another part of the country that more closely matches their views, allowing for political debates to occur without the weight of fear lurking behind every word.
However, if Americans continue down this road, with the pendulum of power swinging in nearly every election, there is little hope of sustaining our fragile union over the next century. Fear is like an invasive disease; if we don’t remove it from our political system, it will inevitably consume us all — and our freedom along with it.
Justin Haskins is executive editor and a research fellow at The Heartland Institute.