Almost a half-century ago, in 1968, the United States seemed to be falling apart.
The Vietnam War, a bitter and close presidential election, anti-war protests, racial riots, political assassinations, terrorism and a recession looming on the horizon left the country divided between a loud radical minority and a silent conservative majority.
The United States avoided a civil war. But America suffered a collective psychological depression, civil unrest, defeat in Vietnam and assorted disasters for the next decade — until the election of a once-polarizing Ronald Reagan ushered in five consecutive presidential terms of relative bipartisan calm and prosperity from 1981 to 2001.
It appears as if 2017 might be another 1968. Recent traumatic hurricanes seem to reflect the country’s human turmoil.
After the polarizing Obama presidency and the contested election of Donald Trump, the country is once again split in two.
But this time the divide is far deeper, both ideologically and geographically — with the two liberal coasts pitted against red-state America in between.
Century-old mute stone statues are torn down in the dead of night, apparently on the theory that by attacking the Confederate dead, the lives of the living might improve.
All the old standbys of American life seem to be eroding. The National Football League is imploding as it devolves into a political circus. Multimillionaire players refuse to stand for the national anthem, turning off millions of fans whose former loyalties paid their salaries.
Politics — or rather a progressive hatred of the provocative Donald Trump — permeates almost every nook and cranny of popular culture.
The new allegiance of the media, late-night television, stand-up comedy, Hollywood, professional sports and universities is committed to liberal sermonizing. Politically correct obscenity and vulgarity among celebrities and entertainers is a substitute for talent, even as Hollywood is wracked by sexual harassment scandals and other perversities.
The smears “racist,” “fascist,” “white privilege” and “Nazi” — like “commie” of the 1950s — are so overused as to become meaningless. There is now less free speech on campus than during the McCarthy era of the early 1950s.
As was the case in 1968, the world abroad is also falling apart.
The European Union, model of the future, is unraveling. The EU has been paralyzed by the exit of Great Britain, the divide between Spain and Catalonia, the bankruptcy of Mediterranean nation members, insidious terrorist attacks in major European cities and the onslaught of millions of immigrants — mostly young, male and Muslim — from the war-torn Middle East. Germany is once again becoming imperious, but this time insidiously by means other than arms.
The failed state of North Korea claims that it has nuclear-tipped missiles capable of reaching America’s West Coast — and apparently wants some sort of bribe not to launch them.
Iran is likely to follow the North Korea nuclear trajectory. In the meantime, its new Shiite hegemony in the Middle East is feeding on the carcasses of Syria and Iraq.
Is the chaos of 2017 a catharsis — a necessary and long-overdue purge of dangerous and neglected pathologies? Will the bedlam within the United States descend into more nihilism, or offer a remedy to the status quo that had divided and nearly bankrupted the country?
Is the problem too much democracy, as the volatile and fickle mob runs roughshod over establishment experts and experienced bureaucrats? Or is the crisis too little democracy, as populists strive to dethrone a scandal-plagued, anti-democratic, incompetent and overrated entrenched elite?
Neither traditional political party has any answers.
Democrats are being overwhelmed by the identity politics and socialism of progressives. Republicans are torn asunder between upstart populist nationalists and the calcified establishment status quo.
Yet for all the social instability and media hysteria, life in the United States quietly seems to be getting better.
The economy is growing. Unemployment and inflation remain low. The stock market and middle-class incomes are up.
Business and consumer confidence are high. Corporate profits are up. Energy production has expanded. The border with Mexico is being enforced.
Is the instability less a symptom that America is falling apart and more a sign that the loud conventional wisdom of the past — about the benefits of a globalized economy, the insignificance of national borders and the importance of identity politics — is drawing to a close, along with the careers of those who profited from it?
In the past, any crisis that did not destroy the United States ended up making it stronger. But for now, the fight grows over which is more toxic — the chronic statist malady that was eating away the country, or the new populist medicine deemed necessary to cure it.
• Victor Davis Hanson is a classicist and historian with the Hoover Institution at Stanford University.
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