Major news organizations have paid a lot of attention lately to America’s fraying social fabric. An Associated Press series called Divided America explores what separates us and “how deep those divisions run.” CNN’s Fractured States of America is a similar project. And The Atlantic’s December issue, under the provocative headline “How to Stop a Civil War,” made the magazine itself a news story.
We weathered past trials; we can get through today’s troubled times — if we’re willing to put in the work.
But though the familiar phrase “We’ve never been more divided” feels accurate, it is, in fact, false. Further, history teaches that today’s divisions — deep, painful and serious — are not worse than those America has endured in the past. And we have plenty of examples other than the worst-case-scenario of the Civil War to prove it.
Still, this is only cold comfort unless we leverage this historical perspective to build a sense of hope, as well as context, for our own age. We weathered past trials; we can get through today’s troubled times — if we’re willing to put in the work. Thanksgiving, which generally features time with loved ones as well as contentious dinner conversations, is a great occasion on which to get started.
Painful fissures in America’s social fabric have dogged the country from its fragile founding; each generation has had to stitch up the seams. Less than five years after the Constitution was signed, the Whiskey Rebellion rocked western Pennsylvania when 7,000 farmers took up arms around Pittsburgh to protest the imposition of a federal liquor tax. In response, President George Washington organized a militia of nearly 13,000 and personally marched it to Pennsylvania to put down the rebellion — the only time a sitting president has ever led troops into the field.
Such dark chapters are by no means the worst in our history; rather, they illustrate how sadly frequent these episodes are — and how often we’ve bounced back from them, including in our recent past. Times much bleaker than our own are within the living memory of the many Americans who experienced the cultural upheaval of the 1960s and ’70s.
None of these examples should make us feel better about our vitriol in 2019, but they can help us breathe a little easier. And then, they should inspire us to roll up our sleeves.
Repairing civil society requires hard work from individuals, more specifically from you and me. We may be a country of 328 million, but restoring public space for disagreement without detesting each other begins with individuals doing so in their day-to-day domestic circumstances. Human heart to human heart.
And for all its flaws, the human heart is actually on our side. As Aristotle observed, we’re made for relationships, for community and unity.
The Thanksgiving holiday is a small but powerful opportunity to move the needle by starting local and mending the frayed edges of our families.
All this means the Thanksgiving holiday is a small but powerful opportunity to move the needle by starting local and mending the frayed edges of our families. The French philosopher Voltaire would have called it “tending your own garden”; Jesus called it loving your neighbor as yourself.
Psychologist Dan Goleman has argued that families are “the first school for emotional learning.” If so, then we’re all better served by forgetting politics this Thanksgiving and focusing instead on the person across the table, listening authentically, loving them as best we can, and letting them love us.
In the end, it’s the common acceptance of truth that will set us free from acrimony. Determining the truth is hard, but we can create space for the necessary national dialogue by first starting small in our own homes.
Bill Rivers was a speechwriter for former U.S. Secretary of Defense James Mattis at the Pentagon from 2017-19. A former Truman Scholar at the University of Pennsylvania, he lives in Virginia. Follow him on Twitter at @WJR_3.