President Trump and I do not agree on much, but he was spot-on in his address to Congress last week, asserting openly that we are a nation divided. We are now red and blue, with only a tad of purple. Increasingly, we draw our lines in the sand and few of us step over “our” line. We all wave the flag, then take it home and lock our doors and our minds.
The president is hardly alone in his assessment. Both talking heads and everyday Americans recognize that we have less and less in common with each other. We watch programs and read publications that reflect our worldviews right back to us. We gravitate toward and spend time with people who think the way we do and avoid those who do not.
Everyone else becomes “the other.”
Many factors contribute to our great divide. The roughly 325 million of us who call the United States home are more diverse than ever before, representing all races, ethnicities, religions and life experiences. Those of us in cities live differently than those of us in rural areas. Some of us are highly educated. Some of us are not. More distinct than any other factors, though, may be that we have so many choices that they isolate us. As we opt for choices that appeal to us, we are making it less likely that we will share common experiences with our fellow Americans.
We are losing our “glue.”
Public education has been a common denominator for Americans for almost two centuries. Most of us, wherever we live and whatever our family background, have attended public school. Our national mythology is replete with tales of the public school teacher who changed our lives, the terrors of middle school and high school and the pride of graduation.
Our public school glue, however, is drying up and crumbling. Increasingly, families are choosing other options — independent schools, faith-based schools, charters, homeschooling. All of these are needed options in some cases, though they have issues just as public schools do. In addition, legislatures across the nation, including the North Carolina General Assembly, have slashed public school funding to the point that schools are recruiting international teachers because American students are choosing careers that provide them a professional income.
Our religious glue is evaporating as well. While many Americans practice our faiths regularly and devoutly and think of our nation as faith-based, the reality is that the United States, like most of Western Europe, is increasingly secular. The Pew Research Center reported in 2015 that almost a quarter of Americans identify with no religion at all. The decline is in part because of millennials, what the survey calls “the least religious generation in American history,” but the decline includes Baby Boomers as well.
For most of the 20th century, the United States maintained the military draft system, which was abolished after the widely unpopular and painful Vietnam conflict. That said, mandatory military service had its issues, but it also provided a common bond for Americans of all backgrounds. My father was a World War II veteran, who remained in contact with his fellow 30th Division comrades all his life. Most of them he would never have known without their common Army service. While we do not necessary feel this in our unique military community, the number of active duty military personnel today is 1.4 million men and women. They make up only 0.04 percent of all Americans. Many Americans do not know a single person who has served in our nation’s military. I have long believed and have written in support of national service for all young Americans. Military service is not appropriate for everyone, but all able young Americans could and should give a year of their lives to our nation in some form of service.
Only a Pollyanna would argue that these national institutions are without troubles. It is also true that for most of our existence as the United States, they have provided common experiences that bind us as a nation. They, among other institutions, have been our glue. America would not have become great without them.
In this era of division — of Americans spinning in myriad not always intersecting directions, I believe that public education at all levels, religious faith whatever form it takes, and national service continue to have roles in binding us as a country. Surely, there are other, newer “glues” as well.
Now, in this time of red-hot division, we must seek our common bonds, our glue. If we cannot — or do not, I fear that poet W. E. Yeats will be right…“the centre cannot hold.”