C. Bradley Thompson

There was a time, not long ago, when most Americans were proud to be Americans, and they liked each other. Sadly, that is no longer the case.

People are so polarized in 2019 that we might now speak of the “Disunited States of America” or the “United States of Hate”! 

Americans are irredeemably divided over Donald Trump, impeachment, capitalism, socialism, democracy, pronouns, abortion, marriage, immigration, climate change, reparations, Brett Kavanaugh, the Covington kids, free speech, drag queen reading hour, political correctness, and many other topics.

All of our cultural institutions — the schools, Boy Scouts, NFL, Oscars, soap operas, late-night television, Broadway, stand-up comedy — have become politicized and weaponized. We can’t even come together over the flag and national anthem.

From Charlottesville to Berkeley, street riots in the last two years have turned into violent pitched battles between armed gangs of masked street thugs representing the so-called alt-left and the alt-right. Ideologically motivated mass shootings are taking place in our schools, synagogues, churches, malls and nightclubs. Some of our democratically elected politicians are calling for violence, and some are the targets of harassment and violence. We are on the verge of lawlessness.

The “ism” in Americanism suggests that being an American is part ideology, part way of life, part attitude, and even part personality.

To make matters worse, few Americans believe that our political institutions are working. Just about half the nation thinks that the election of Donald Trump was illegitimate and the other half thinks the Democratic Party is engaged in a silent coup to overturn a democratic election of 2016.

Nation that hates itself can’t stand

It is not an exaggeration to suggest that liberal and conservative Americans hate each other. There are now two Americas, and the division is not between “haves” and “have nots” or between whites and blacks. The coastal, blue state, Ivy–educated Ruling Elite has contempt for flyover, red state, trailer park deplorables. And vice versa.

Where is all this leading us? This much is certain: To paraphrase Abraham Lincoln, a nation that hates itself cannot stand.

Shockingly, conservative and liberal media outlets are now publishing with some regularity articles with titles such as “America’s Coming Civil War” or “The Second Civil War is Coming.” According to Victor Davis Hanson, one of our most penetrating and judicious thinkers, America is “now nearing a point comparable to 1860.”

Should we take these headlines seriously, or is it just journalistic hyperbole?

Polling data from Georgetown University’s Institute of Politics and Public Service suggests “more than half the likely electorate thinks we are more than 70% of the way to being at the edge of civil war.” According to a poll taken by Newsweek, a third of all Americans think such a conflict could break out within the next five years, and 10% think it is “very likely to happen.” These are ominous and disturbing numbers.

Rediscover promise of American life

Nothing, however, is inevitable. If we are to avoid civil war, Americans must rediscover the principles and promise of American life that united us for over 200 years.

We should recall that the United States of America is the first and only nation in world history defined by a self-referential philosophy, by an “ism.” That philosophy or “ism” is summed up in the expression “Americanism.”

The “ism” in Americanism suggests that being an American is part ideology, part way of life, part attitude, and even part personality. Broadly defined, Americanism is that philosophy which identifies the traditional moral character and sense of life unique to the people of the United States.

The idea of Americanism has no foreign counterpart. No other nation has anything quite like it. We may speak of a French, an Italian or a Persian culture, but there is no Frenchism, Italianism or Persianism.

Americanism is and always has been synonymous with the self-evident truths of the Declaration of Independence. The Declaration’s axiomatic truths say that “all men are created equal” and that all men are endowed “with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

The philosophy of Americanism says that — despite our differences of race, ethnicity, class, sex, gender, sexual orientation, religion or place of origin — all men and women are equally free, morally sovereign and self-governing. This philosophy inspired hundreds of millions of people from around the world to immigrate to America.

America once was, and hopefully still can be, a nation for the ambitious, hard-working, creative, productive, adventurous and entrepreneurial. That is the meaning of Americanism and the spirit of American liberty. 

The time has come for Americans who care about the future of the United States to unite around the philosophy of Americanism, to reinvigorate the promise of American life, and to take back our country from the nattering nabobs of discontent.

C. Bradley Thompson teaches at Clemson University and is the author of “America’s Revolutionary Mind: A Moral History of the American Revolution and the Declaration that Defined It.”

The Hidden Common Ground project is supported by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, the Charles Koch Foundation, and the Rockefeller Brothers Fund. The Kettering Foundation serves as a research partner to the Hidden Common Ground initiative.

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