Beyond the divisive — at times ruthless — campaign rhetoric is a fundamental and undeniable truth: Most Americans believe their nation is “on the wrong track.”
According to a recent Bloomberg poll, as many as two-thirds of people hold this sentiment, and similar to previous election seasons, both the Democratic and Republican candidates for president are promising they can reverse course, improve the economy and make your life better and, by extension, happier.
But after decades of promises made and broken, most Americans know that no matter who wins, the country will likely not see the dramatic improvements guaranteed by either Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump. This is particularly true of the 2016 election; most voters aren’t even voting for their candidate of choice so much as they are voting against the opposition, which means fear, not hope, is this year’s most important issue for voters.
This lack of hope — combined with years of disappointment, corruption and failure in Washington — is accelerating the growing divide among different groups of people, and there is no sign either candidate will be able to heal the divisions between us.
Although this may feel like a novel crisis, the differences between people are neither new nor more extreme than those divisions that have existed in the past. In fact, division has been a normal, often healthy part of the American experience since the United States’ 18th-century founding, when cultural and socio-economic differences were, in many ways, much greater than they are today.
Why then do our divisions feel so extreme, and why do we find ourselves constantly fighting what seems like a do-or-die battle for the soul of America with every presidential election? Many sociologists, psychologists, cultural experts and political pundits have offered a variety of complex explanations, but none ever seem to ultimately solve the problem. This is interesting and perplexing, because from the very beginning, the Founders understood and readily accepted that any truly free and peaceful nation must first and foremost acknowledge the eternal truths that people are not all the same, that people are not all interested in living the same way, and that various groups should be allowed to live as freely as possible.
Much has changed since the United States was created, especially over the past century. America is, more than ever, unified. Our economy, culture, food and clothing are essentially the same no matter where you go. These “unifying” features of our modern nation, however, are superficial and not a reflection of the substantial ideological differences that still exist across the country.
Rather than accept these unique characteristics as valuable parts of a free society, presidential elections have become a way to impose beliefs on people with whom different groups of voters disagree with every four years, creating a feeling that no matter who wins any given election, someone is going to lose. This is not, however, what a representative government should look like, and, as a matter of historical fact, it’s not the system originally established by the Constitution.
The 10th Amendment, passed as part of the Bill of Rights, declares, “The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.”
Putting legal arguments about states’ rights aside, it’s clear, at the very least, the Founders understood the importance of state and local governments and sought to protect them from potential intrusions made by a powerful and centralized national government.
This wasn’t done only to prevent tyranny, it was also meant to ensure laws and the governments tasked with creating and enforcing them would reflect the diverse desires of the people. Under our current system, nearly all of the influential laws that govern our lives are created hundreds or thousands of miles away, in Washington, D.C., by a relatively small group of people who often don’t know or understand the unique challenges facing local communities. Whoever holds the majority at the national level, however thin the margin might be, impose beliefs on the United States’ incredibly diverse population.
It’s no surprise then that so many Americans feel as though the country is “on the wrong track,” because for the tens of millions of people who happen to find themselves in the minority, the laws and government programs forced on them are directing people on a “track” they don’t want to be on.
To save our divided nation, we need to recognize and respect the reality that divisions exist and always will, and we should allow communities to live in a way that’s consistent with their beliefs — so long as individuals’ rights are respected and discrimination is disallowed.