Every country, whether a vast superpower of its time or a tiny state in an inaccessible part of the globe, suffers hardships, chaos and depression -- psychological and economic -- as well as good times.
The United States was born from revolution. It suffered numerous economic depressions and recessions; a civil war; acts of terror as old as the nation; pandemics; too many lost wars; assassinations; and four impeachments of its presidents, one twice. Indeed, a sitting vice president was tried and acquitted of treason. Another aspirant ran for the slot while in prison.
America slaughtered thousands of its original inhabitants as it moved West, gobbling up lands all the way to the Pacific; persecuted Germans, Italians, Jews, Poles and other Eastern Europeans in the mid-19th century, as well as Chinese and interning over 100,000 Japanese during World War II. It arrested without due process tens of thousands during the 1918-20 "red scares" and labor riots when the nation was attacked by a handful of terrorist letter bombs, all during the Spanish flu pandemic and a world war. And treatment of its Black and Brown citizens has never reached full equality with its White population.
For all that and more repressive behavior, America had managed to remain for the most part "the shining city on the hill" and the democratic oasis that attracted so many souls "yearning to be free." Yet, today, and despite its history of good and bad, one wonders if this is the same America as it has been for centuries? Or has historic amnesia erased recollections and memories of incidents that meant what this country has stood for and thus left us with the detritus of today's life?
Divisions have always existed. So, too, have the scars of partisanship and polarization been evident. Franklin D. Roosevelt may have mesmerized 60% of the public. But the bulk of the other 40% detested him, perhaps more than many have detested more recent presidents. Before Pearl Harbor, America First reigned, and the nation steered clear of war in spite of Roosevelt's maneuvering to join the allies in Europe.
But perhaps since Sept. 11, 2001, the nation has begun a more palpable metamorphosis or serious erosion of a national sense of cohesion, a steep progression from the mistrust and distrust that has been accumulating like bad cholesterol within the public for its government and governors originating with the Vietnam War and Watergate simply spilled over. That Americans not only do not trust but now mistrust government, especially in Washington, may be the virus of this malaise that has infected politics as COVID-19 has the public.
Preferences for particular political parties can identify citizens as conservative or liberal; progressive or socialist; proponent of big or smaller government; certain foreign policy; and other legitimate issues. But political parties cannot be the basis for being pro- or anti-vaccination, masking and social distancing or any other subject that deserves no place in partisan politics. Yet, politics have taken a 1984-like embrace to become all consuming and, unlike in George Orwell's future, all dividing.
While walking our dog, it is extraordinary how few people are seen wearing masks, even though Tuesday over 200,000 COVID-19 cases and 2,100 deaths were reported. At that rate, the nation could reach 800,000 deaths before Thanksgiving. Is this the mark of a serious nation, when many of one party can still argue that the right not to be vaccinated or to wear a mask trumps the public good?
Ttest this logic a bit further. On that basis, should anyone pay income tax if they believe it is the right to protest incompetent government by withholding funding. Can individuals not do that with recalcitrant employees not honoring their contract? Or why should one register for Selective Service?
If a war comes, is it not my right to protest it by not joining in a conflict with which I disagree? And of course this logic can be taken to even more reductio ad absurdum lengths. The tragedy is that there does not appear any way out of this vicious spiral of discontent and disagreement.
Perhaps age brings certain reservations. But the actions of the Texas Legislature in passing the new anti-abortion law; Congress attempting to raise corporate taxes to levels that could kill competitiveness while ignoring the revenues companies remit to government; refusal to accept the 2020 election; and the botched Afghanistan withdrawal and what that implies about American incompetence and bad leadership are deafening alarms. But who is listening?
Harlan Ullman is senior adviser at Washington, D.C.'s Atlantic Council, the prime author of "shock and awe" and author of the upcoming book "The Fifth Horseman and the New MAD: How Massive Attacks of Disruption Became the Looming Existential Danger to a Divided Nation and the World at Large."
The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.