For a short period in the 1960s, we saw political assassination as the new normal. The president, Malcolm-X, Martin Luther King, Jr., Bobby Kennedy—they were the victims in a five-year span where America transmuted from the leader of the free world to a second-rate nation. We talk about Pax Americana, but when we do, we often forget to factor in the late sixties which were anything but peaceful and anything but American.
But we recovered. Relative calm returned, despite difficulties as divergent as strife in the Middle East and the inability to put a stop to racial bias and bigotry. We always seemed to be moving forward, albeit slowly. Pax Americana signified relative calm after the World Wars, and we achieved that.
One factor that we took for granted throughout was that our leaders would lead, that the person we elected president would share a vision of America that the great majority of us shared—filled with all the shibboleths from all our patriotic songs—"land of the free," "with liberty and justice for all," "let freedom ring." Only one president in that era tried to divide the country into good and evil by pandering to the fearful silent majority, but even he ultimately resigned when he realized his own power was diminished and the country would not withstand such divisiveness.
In a sense the presidency of Richard Nixon proved Abraham Lincoln right: a house divided against itself, cannot stand. But there's more to Lincoln's comment: "I believe this government cannot endure, permanently, half slave and half free. I do not expect the Union to be dissolved — I do not expect the house to fall — but I do expect it will cease to be divided."
It will cease to be divided.
Some might see that as hopeful; others, ominous. We will decide in 2020 whether we want a unified country with a strongman at the helm of an autocracy, or a unified country that believes the phrases we sing about at baseball games and that our children repeat in school every day. Do we want more decades of Pax Americana, or do we follow the new nationalists (in America and elsewhere) into decades of strife and war, where the homeland and its native populace trumps everything. The choice is ours.
We have failed before—we have given in to fear and elected leaders who have sought to divide us. And by we, I mean not only Americans, but people in every civilized nation who have conflated nationalism and patriotism and, in the shadow of that error, performed horrible misdeeds. After all, what is genocide but misguided, extreme, diabolical nationalism? And internment, the caging of children, the economic isolation of minorities, the strictures against immigrants, even the idolatrous symbolism of guns—they're all are part of the same mentality. And every time nationalism has superseded our better judgment, the offending nation and its people have suffered, then repented, in the end sought a better way.
If America truly is more an idea than a place, our next chance for a better way comes by in November 2020. One way or another, we will cease to be divided. Exactly what that means is up to the voters.