The bloodiest day in American history was not inflicted by Al Qaeda on 9/11, or the Japanese Empire at Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, or Nazi Germany on D-Day June 6, all among the most famous dates in U.S. history.
Instead, we did it to ourselves. At Antietam, Md., on this date, Sept. 17, 1862, Americans killed or mortally wounded 6,300 of their brothers in a single day. The most appalling battle scene occurred at Sunken Road, a narrow, low-lying wagon track over which 10,000 Southern and Northern soldiers fought at point-blank range so fiercely they inflicted 5,500 casualties on one another in just a few hours.
It may be hard for us to imagine an America so deeply divided as to provoke such slaughter.
And it would be comforting to decide that our current troubled politics and discontented national mood are nowhere near as serious as the divisions that caused the Civil War. Yet that may be wishful thinking.
Many scholars see an America facing political, economic, and cultural problems as serious as any at least since World War II, and perhaps the Civil War. As Suzanne Mettler and Robert C. Lieberman suggested recently in Foreign Affairs magazine, extreme “political polarization, conflict over who belongs in the political community, high and growing economic inequality, and excessive executive power” are threatening a “crisis in democracy . . . [T]oday, for the first time in its history, the United States faces all four threats at the same time.”
Of these, extreme partisan polarization seems most dangerous, as it is preventing progress on the other problems. Mettler and Lieberman note that in the 1950s, when pollsters asked Americans whether they would prefer that their child “marry a Democrat or a Republican,” nearly three-quarters did not care which. By 2016, 55% expressed a partisan preference for their future son-in-law or daughter-in-law. Similar partisan partitioning is now evident in how Americans choose a neighborhood to live in, a school for their children, and even their workplaces.
No matter who wins the coming election, the other side will question its legitimacy, as has happened increasingly after the closely fought elections of Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, Barack Obama, and President Trump. Indeed, it was Trump’s falsely disputing Obama’s American birth in a series of network TV interviews in 2011 that first established him as a darling of the political right.
Already, in part incited by Trump’s incendiary rhetoric, politically motivated citizen-on-citizen violence is increasing at an alarming rate. In the last few months, more than 50 drivers have deliberately driven into peaceful protesting crowds, as Rachel Kleinfled has noted, in a wide-ranging essay on the rise of political violence.
Donald Trump’s base perceives attempts to control the coronavirus pandemic as assaults on their freedom. Black Lives Matter activists are incredulous as they see African Americans subject to systemic imprisonment, and dying not only at the hands of police, but disproportionately from gun violence and the COVID crisis, as well. The working classes of all races and political persuasions see their real income falling, especially as the pandemic employment crisis weakens their already tenuous economic stability. Yet income inequality is still worsening. And Trump has undermined confidence in the election procedures and results already, hinting darkly that he may provoke a constitutional crisis by refusing to abide by them.
Back in 1862, Antietam proved a turning point in the Civil War. Viewed as a Northern victory despite the carnage on both sides, the battle prompted President Lincoln to issue the Emancipation Proclamation a few days later, transforming the war into a moral crusade. And it convinced most voters that the Confederacy would not win, helping pro-Northern Republicans win the 1862 and 1864 elections. Yet it took more than two and a half more years, and the deaths of hundreds of thousands more Americans, to finally end the war.
Racial, political, economic and cultural divisions remain painfully deep today. But as gloomy as the national scene may appear, we have turned things around before. As Ron Brownstein notes in his prophetic 2007 book about U.S. political polarization, “The Second Civil War,” Franklin Roosevelt faced daunting divisions during the Great Depression and run-up to World War II. But FDR consciously pursued policies that “harmonized as many interests as possible” in a way that helped bring much of the country back together.
For all their partisanship, Democrats did not pick a radical culture warrior as their nominee. Joe Biden has been conspicuously appealing to white and black and Hispanic working-class voters alike, and reaching out to rural and exurban voters. Yes, this is good politics, but also it seems good for the country. Biden has said he will be a president for all Americans, whether they support him or not.
The choice in this election may come down to whether voters choose the “better angels of our nature” that Abraham Lincoln invoked at the end of the Civil War, or the Sunken Road politics that Donald Trump so ferociously pursues. Unlike those soldiers who fought at Antietam, we do still have a choice.