Our Critically Disappearing National Consensus

A few weeks ago I wrote on the great divisions troubling American society at the moment and the possibility of a second civil war. The concluding paragraph of that column included this: “I console myself with the thought that the assassinations have not yet begun.” Today, I’d have to say, “I console myself with the thought that the attempted assassinations have not yet been successful.”

For the last week or two, following the bombs in the mail and the mass murder at the Pittsburgh synagogue, the air has been filled with prominent voices, both liberal and conservative, calling for a restoration of national unity.

When former Vice-president Joe Biden, a very prominent liberal, added his voice to those deploring division and calling for unity, I said to myself, “Oh good!  Oh wonderful! This means that liberals like Biden will stop calling me (a cultural conservative) a racist, a sexist, a homophobe, a xenophobe, an Islamophobe, and a transphobe.”

But, of course, Biden’s call for national unity doesn’t mean any such thing.  It means, “We can have unity in America if only moral dinosaurs like Dave Carlin will get with the program; if only they’ll renounce their hatred and try to get on the right side of history.”

I suppose Biden regards himself as a living example of how liberals and conservatives can be reconciled. “Insofar as I’m a Catholic,” he may say to himself, “I’m a conservative; but insofar as I champion abortion and gay marriage, I’m a liberal.  Why can’t everybody be like me?  Why can’t everybody nominally embrace Catholic values, and really embrace anti-Catholic values?”

Most of those, both left and right, calling for national unity seem to believe that it’s simply a matter of being polite to one another.  If politicians only had a genuine will to unity, unity would ensue.  If only Donald Trump and the Trump-haters (for example, at CNN and MSNBC) were to show more respect for one another, ours would be a happy land.

And – if only – sometime early in 1861, Abe Lincoln and Jeff Davis had sat down for a friendly cup of tea (or bourbon), the Civil War could have been avoided.

But our national divisions are far more serious than that, far more profound.  We are in the midst of a clash of worldviews – or at least of nationviews.  What kind of nation is the USA to be?

Will it be a thoroughly secularized nation in which religion and a religion-based morality play little or no role; a nation in which the central government will be a godlike being, empowered to solve all problems?  This is the “progressive” vision; or as it may be called, the vision of a “new America.”

Or will it be a nation in which religion (especially Christianity) plays a major role; a nation in which individuals and families are expected to be self-reliant, and where government does only those things that individuals and private associations either cannot do at all or cannot do so well?  This is the “conservative” vision; or as it may be called, the “old-fashioned America” vision (and Catholic subsidiarity vision).


I can see only two possible ways of restoring an effective national unity.

One way is that one side in the great culture war wins a nearly total victory while the other side suffers a nearly total defeat. This is how we settled an earlier culture war, the one having to do with slavery.

Since another actual civil war, with real armies marching against one another, is unlikely, the side that hopes to win the current culture war will have to win the propaganda battle; which means it will have to become dominant in society’s organs of cultural propaganda – that is, schools, colleges, and universities; the mainstream journalistic media; and the entertainment industry.

Since progressives currently dominate these organs, it is more likely than not that progressives will win the propaganda war, and thus the culture war.  We conservatives will be reduced to the status of defeated Confederates after the Civil War.  While living in the new America, we’ll nurse hopes that the old America will someday “rise again.”

Another possibility is both sides, left and right, will find something really important to agree on that will make our cultural differences seem to be relatively unimportant.  Religion used to serve this function.  While the USA never had a formal state religion, for a long time we had an informal national religion: Protestantism.

It was not the Protestantism of any particular sect or denomination, but Protestantism in general. But when this would no longer do, since many Catholics and Jews had come to America, our national religion became what we called our “Judeo-Christian heritage.”

But with the rise of atheism and agnosticism, this too would no longer do. So we turned to a moral consensus, but this quickly broke down, since we could not agree either on sex-related matters (e.g., abortion, homosexuality) or on a general theory of morality.

So is there any really important thing that all Americans – Catholics, Protestants, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, agnostics, atheists, homosexuals, heterosexuals, bisexuals, transgenders, meat-eaters, vegetarians, dog-lovers, cat-lovers, sadomasochists, etc. – can agree on?

The only thing I can think of is ceaseless and passionate commercial activity; that is, a mad frenzy of making money and spending it.  The kind of thing that Wordsworth, as though anticipating our present-day problems, wrote about in his sonnet, “The world is too much with us.”  Drunk with “getting and spending,” we will think of America, not as a fatherland, but as nothing more (or less) than a tremendous commercial association.

Except for a few of us, nobody will any longer care about the ideas and values that are currently exciting progressives and conservatives.  The USA will be spiritually shallow, and minimally unified, unless – as also seems likely – commercial association also proves too weak a basis to hold a nation together.

Then what? Who can say? But it won’t be pretty.


*Image: “Instruments of Power” (from the America Today series by Thomas Hart Benton, 1931 [The Met, New York]. The painting shown is one of ten painted by Benton for the boardroom of NYC’s New School for Social Research.

David Carlin is a retired professor of sociology and philosophy at the Community College of Rhode Island, and the author of The Decline and Fall of the Catholic Church in America, Three Sexual Revolutions: Catholic, Protestant, Atheist, and most recently Atheistic Humanism, the Democratic Party, and the Catholic Church.