By Keith Preston
The statistical data that has been gathered on present political divisions in the United States indicates that the divide between Democrats and Republicans is the highest it’s been at any point since the Civil War. In addition to the mainstream partisan divide, there has also been growing violence between extremist groups on the margins of the Right and Left. Some have invoked comparisons with the violence between the Nazis and Communists during the period of the German Weimar Republic between the two world wars. Others have compared the election of Donald Trump with the rise of the Third Reich after the failure of Weimar.
Yet, it would appear that such comparisons are a manifestation of the hyperbole that has come to dominate political life in the USA of the early 21st century. Germany during the 1920s was a nation that had been ruined by its defeat in World War One, with burdensome reparations having been imposed by means of the Treaty of Versailles, and having been stripped of most of its territories in Central Europe and overseas colonies. One of the conditions of the Versailles Treaty was that Germany was prohibited from having an army larger than 100,000 troops. Nearly four percent of the German population had died as a result of the Great War. The Great Depression was also very severe for the Germans with there being millions of unemployed and starving people. Democracy was also a brand new form of government for the Germans during Weimar, having only come into being at the end of World War I after the end of the traditional monarchy.
Political and economic conditions in the United States at present do not even remotely approach those of Weimar Germany in the 1920s. There has not been a war found on American soil since the 19th century, and there has not been a foreign war using conscripted soldiers with deaths numbering in the five figures or six figures in nearly half a century. While the military outcome of recent US wars has not been particularly successful, the actual number of American casualties has been merely a drop in the bucket compared to past wars, a mere 7200 in 16 years. There is some evidence that Trump’s electoral victory was due in part to high rates of war casualties in the Rust Belt states, in addition to the problems these regions face economically. However, for most Americans the recent wars have been barely noticeable, and have been more of a nuisance than a major burden for the nation as a whole. It is other societies that have experienced genuine destruction because of recent American wars. It is also true that neither the Left nor the Right seems to have opposition to war as a primary issue of concern in the same way that opposition to the war in Vietnam was a major public issue in the late 1960s and early 1970s.
While the Great Recession of 2008-2009 was significant, it hardly compared with the Great Depression of the 1930s when people literally starved to death. The United States remains one of the wealthiest nations in the world in terms of overall economic development and living standards. It is certainly true that class divisions are now the widest they have been at any point in the past century, but most poverty in the US involves relative poverty, and not the absolute poverty that characterizes many underdeveloped societies. While absolute poverty is indeed growing in the United States, it continues to exist only in pockets, and has yet to reach the level of a national crisis. Far from being populated by a nation of starving people, the USA currently maintains the highest rate of obesity in the world.
As for questions involving claims of oppression, every leading indicator demonstrates that social groups that have traditionally been oppressed in the United States are now better off than ever. For example, while there are still significant disparities between white Americans and African-Americans in terms of wealth, education, and other factors, it is also true that the evidence indicates that African-Americans now a more successful population group than ever, and are more successful than any other nation with a large black population. The status of women, gays, and other traditional outgroups has also improved enormously in recent decades as well. This is not to say that there are not problems in these areas but it is also true that movements to oppose traditional forms of oppression have been so successful that the concept of “oppression” has come to be redefined in increasingly bizarre and implausible ways.
It is not only the Left but also the Right that is increasingly prone to assert claims of having been oppressed. For example, it is not uncommon for affluent, upper middle class whites to complain about their alleged serfdom imposed by means of taxes, even though tax rates in the United States are among the lowest of any industrialized democracy. There are persistent claims by 2nd Amendment advocates that the “right to bear arms” is under attack even though the United States clearly has gun laws that are among the most liberal in the world. There are constant claims of oppression being made by representatives of various religious communities of a more conservative bent. Yet the United States continues to have among the most liberal laws pertaining to religious liberty in the world. Conflicts regarding freedom of religion in the United States normally involve conflicting claims of civil rights, usually involving state run institutions, and not oppression in the traditional sense. For example, Russia recently banned the Jehovah’s Witnesses, something that would never happen in the United States.
In recent times, there have been increased claims of denial of free speech rights. However, the United States continues to have among the most liberal free speech laws in the world thanks to thanks to the First Amendment. With one notable exception involving a situation where a foreign lobby has been able to exercise an excessive amount of power over US law, most threats to free speech and academic freedom in the United States come from the universities and the corporations, normally involving professional or economic sanctions being imposed on persons with disagreeable views, with both leftists and rightists being the victims. While this situation is indeed problematic, it is hardly comparable to the norm in traditional police states where dissidents are simply rounded up in the middle of the night, and imprisoned, tortured or executed without trial, and often in secret.
Probably the closest thing that currently exists in the United States to traditional forms of oppression such as slavery, genocide, religious persecution, ethnic persecution, the oppression of women and gays found in more traditional societies, etc. would be the system of mass incarceration that exists at present. It is interesting that the United States has only 5% percent of the world’s population but 25% of the world’s prisoners. There are also growing concerns about police militarization, police killings of civilians, and police brutality on a general level. Both the Left and Right have criticized growing trends towards overcriminalization in US law. However, these have remained only peripheral areas of concern for sectors of the Right, and not an issue of concern at all for much of the Right. The Left has generally criticized these developments only to the degree that there are racial disparities involved (hence, the development of the Black Lives Matter movement).
Given that recent wars have had very little impact on the lives of most Americans, the high living standards that continue to exist in the US for the most part, the ongoing improvement of the conditions of traditional outgroups, the relative absence of more traditional forms of oppression on a significant scale, and that mass incarceration and related issues remain an issue of only peripheral concern, one has to wonder what Americans are so divided about. What is the real source of the political division that currently exists in the United States?
The issue is clearly not economic frustration. The most recent polling data gathered by Gallup indicates that only about 20% of Americans cite economic issues as their primary issues of concern down from 80% during the peak of the 2008-2009 recession. Unemployment (7%) and the state of the economy generally (6%) are the only economic issues that any noticeable percentage of Americans are primarily concerned about. This data hardly reflects Weimar-like economic conditions. Issues such as the national debt, income inequality, or taxes barely even make the charts as issues of genuine public concern. Over 80% of Americans currently cite non-economic issues as their primary issue of concern. The most significant issue of this kind at present is “dissatisfaction with government/poor leadership” with 20% of Americans reporting this as their primary issue of interest. Healthcare is a close second at 17% percent with immigration and race relations tying for a distant third at 7% percent, and political disunity coming in fourth at 6%. Seemingly major issues such as the situation with North Korea, poverty, education, crime, terrorism, national security, and the environment were all cited by less than 5% of the US population as their primary issue of concern.
In other words, there is no single issue that a majority of Americans even come close to recognizing as a priority. The closest is the one-fifth of Americans who cite “dissatisfaction with government” on a general level as their primary social or political grievance. The fact that Americans express such an astounding lack of consensus concerning the issues they find to be the most significant could be explained in two possible ways. One of these would be that most Americans simply do not have that many problems, or at least none of a social, political, or economic nature that are all that serious. The other possible explanation would be that there are indeed many Americans with very serious problems, but the kinds of problems involved vary so widely among individuals and groups that there is nothing even remotely approaching a consensus on which problems are the most important. It is also quite likely that there are substantial numbers of Americans, perhaps even a majority, who really do not care about any issues at all as evidenced by the fact that nearly half of eligible voters, sometimes more, decline to participate in elections for major offices.
This data hardly indicates that Americans have reached a political situation resembling the Weimar Republic, or that they are inclined to do so at any point in the foreseeable future. The situation in Weimar Germany was one where a new democracy was being attempted in a nation that faced military and economic ruin, along with national humiliation. The Weimar regime was characterized by political instability and inertia to the point that imminently serious problems could not be effectively addressed. Consequently, the political Center was unable to hold, and otherwise moderate politicians began reaching out to the far fringes of the Left and Right in order to build constituencies for themselves. Additionally, avowedly revolutionary movements developed on the far right and far left that promised to abolish the failed republic and create an overtly authoritarian state which was more in keeping with the monarchist and Prussian military traditions of the Germans. Eventually, both the Nazi and Communist parties grew to the point that they were larger and more popular than the pro-republican parties. At this point, democratic government became an impossibility in Germany.
In very limited way, political conditions in present day America do resemble those of Weimar in the sense that the Center is very unpopular, and that centrist politicians continue to court elements among the cultural extremes as possible constituents. For example, the GOP since the 1970s has simply been about trying to create a constituency for the right-wing of the ruling class by inciting the most retrograde sectors of American society against all kinds of bogeymen (e.g. the kinds of people who seriously believed that Obama was a Kenyan with a transexual wife, and a liberal, a Communist, a Muslim and a fascist all at the same time). The Democrats response has been to reach out to the far fringes of the cultural left while moving rightward on foreign policy, economics, law enforcement, and all the things that actually matter (“Vote Democrat: Bombs, Poverty, Mass Incarceration and Transgender Restrooms”).
It is also true that in more recent times violent fringe groups have emerged on the margins of U.S. society as evidenced by the conflagrations that have occurred in Charlottesville, Berkeley, Portland, and Washington this year, as well as lone nuts that have assassinated cops, attempted to murder Congressmen, or murdered African-Americans during a church service. However, the leadership of both political parties has been very quick to distance themselves from and marginalize extremists of a violent nature. However divided the political class may be over partisan interests, there remains a sharp consensus among elites against disruption on the margins. There is no evidence that this will change, and unlike Weimar, the United States has a centuries-long tradition of civilian democratic government.
It is very unlikely that significant numbers of either the elites or the general public would ever be receptive to the message of revolutionary totalitarian extremists such as neo-Nazis or neo-Communists. The United States at present is not a nation of restless youth, starving peasants, or demobilized soldiers driven by desperation but an aging population of fat and lazy people who think that managing to visit a gym once a month constitutes tremendous exertion. Not exactly revolutionary material. And in spite of the histrionics coming from the leftward end of the political spectrum over the supposed “fascism” of moderate Republican Donald Trump, the “Calexit” movement for California secession has thus far gained only very marginal support.
The present day Red/Blue tribal civil war in the United States would seem to be less of a case of a repeat of the failures of the Weimar Republic, and more analogous to the rivalry between the fans of “Star Tek” and “Star Wars,” or the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox. People appear to choose their political affiliations on these basis of reference group influences, personality type and psychological makeup, admiration or dislike of individual personalities, and single issues of personal significance or interest such as health care, gun laws, or animal rights. People tend to purchase their political allegiances in package deals sold to them by their favorite websites, cable news networks, or radio personalities. Many fans of the Republicans no doubt base their position on trade policy on what they last heard coming out of the mouth of Sean Hannity or Laura Ingraham. If Sean were to come out in favor of a stereotypically liberal position (such as increasing subsidies for the treatment of people with HIV infection in Africa), he would likely be praised by his fans as a good Christian man who wants to help the unfortunate. If Michael Moore were to advocate for the same position, he would be lambasted as Communist who wants to waste the tax dollars of Americans on undeserving foreigners. Many fans of the Democrats will no doubt their positions on criminal justice reform on what they heard from Rachel Maddow or Trevor Noah. If Trevor were to call for more lenient criminal justice policies one week, his fans would be on board. If he called for a crackdown on crime three months later, his fans will likely do an about face on the issue as well. No doubt many people feel compelled to take positions on issues they know nothing about, and in their heart of hearts don’t care about, on the basis of team loyalties (“Okay, this is what Colbert said about US-Cuban relations so my position is…”). This kind of groupthink functions in the same manner among more extreme political tendencies, and often with a much higher level of intensity to the point that people are willing to engage in violence over their respective tribal affiliations.
This is not to say that the fans of various political teams are not sincere. Fans of Star Trek and Star Wars have engaged in very sincere disputes with each other as well. Fans of rival sports teams can be very intense in their commitments. Our recent wave of “statue warriors” have nothing on sports fans in terms of their capacity for lethal violence. Still, with the exception of tiny fringe groups such as the neo-Nazis and Antifa, these conflicts are not existential in nature. They do not involve rivalries between cults offering competing visions of other-worldly utopias as was the case in Weimar, where the options presented were between a vision of a eugenically-engineered master race and that of a classless world of superabundance where poverty and suffering have been eliminated. Arguments about policies pertaining to voter identification requirements just don’t have the same sex appeal. So not to worry, civilization will survive. In the meantime, break out the beer and popcorn, and enjoy the show.