Right now the centrifugal forces of division are pulling us apart: We draw our national map into red states and blue states, the political system is frozen along tribal party lines, violent hate is on display in places like Charlottesville, Va., and a rapidly shifting economy seems to be only exacerbating our growing income inequality.
On issue after issue it seems we are more interested in digging ideological trenches than working toward a solution. Too many of us get our news mostly, if not entirely, from sources that reflect our biases rather than challenge us to think critically. And we tend to congregate in separate communities of “our own kind.” How did we get here? And how can we get back to a more united place?
To pine for the past, however, is to misread history. With a few exceptions — primarily the short-lived coming together that has characterized society in the midst of some of our wars, natural disasters and terror attacks — unity has been more of a goal than a reality over the course of American history.
When our Founding Fathers gathered in Philadelphia in 1776 to sign the Declaration of Independence, they called themselves “the Representatives of the united States of America.” While admirable, this sentiment was largely wishful thinking.
At the time, the outcome of the war for independence was far from certain, and many colonists were more aligned with the British crown than with the revolutionaries. The idealism of Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin and others ultimately prevailed, and a government emerged that was philosophically committed to the ideas of freedom and equality. But it simultaneously enshrined a system of slavery, discriminated against women and Native Americans, and failed in many other ways to live up in practice to its soaring rhetoric.
Indeed, these early institutional injustices have shaped America’s central incongruity. And they endure as essential reminders that there has always been a chasm between our ideals and our reality.