By Emily Holland and Hadas Aron
This seemingly unending election cycle has unleashed a demon upon us all. Of course, Trump is partly to blame for dragging politics into the gutter, but the malaise associated with the 2016 election is not unique. In fact, it is a global phenomenon. Throughout the developed world, people are experiencing democratic anxieties manifesting in racist, exclusionary and nativist rhetoric. Ordinary citizens are consuming the fear spread by leaders and the outcome is a troubled, restless time.
This is of course not the first time in history that the United States or other regions have experienced deep public divisions and unrest. The demon is always present, but only gets unleashed every once in a while. The reasons underlying high political tensions are numerous, and we will briefly review them here. Eventually, however, the demon always retreats back into the box and life goes back to relative normal. But the way unrest eases is almost never pleasant, and in the process no one gets exactly what they set out for.
Much has been written about the losers of globalization, the ones who are left behind while the rest of the world has moved on. These are unskilled workers who lost both their job security and their identity as the heart of American society. This pertains mostly to the white working class in formerly industrial areas, but increasingly includes the poor more generally. For these groups, traditional politicians have failed to respond to their crisis and thus populist leaders found a fertile ground on which to mobilize. The result of this failure is anti-elitism, nativism, exclusionary views, the rejection of mainstream politics and of course, Trump.
But our troubled, divided times are not unique in American history. The most obvious example is of course the Civil War, but other examples include the interwar period, McCarthyism, the Civil Rights movement, and the Vietnam War. All of these periods were characterized by civil unrest, heightened political activism, and even violence. But another thing they have in common is that eventually they all ended. Although they did not necessarily create a better American society, they did usher in a more subdued one. What lessons can we draw from past periods of unrest and how they ended?
1. The Civil War: The most divided period in American history ended in a bloody war. Not a good sign for things to come. Of course, at the time America was a young, fragile nation with more profound divisions. That said, the war did not actually mend the divisions between north and south. To achieve their goals, the north occupied the south and implemented reconstruction, which rather than a great transformation, was instead a great compromise. Reconstruction ended and ushered in the Jim Crowe era, which calmed the anxieties of the white south, at least for a while. For African Americans, this was a disastrous outcome and it demonstrates that period of unrest often end with a little progress and a lot of regression. Similarly, in Europe in 1848, Kings were overthrown and monarchies felled, but a year later the ancien régime was at least partly reinstated.
2. The Interwar Era is characterized by a period of deep democratic anxiety. In the United States, one of the consequences of this anxiety was the tremendous success of the Ku Klux Klan, which at its height had a membership of 5 million people across the country. Much of the unrest centered on issues of immigration and ethnic cleavages between Catholics and Protestants. When the government passed the 1924 Immigration Act, which instated quotas for immigration according to country of origin, much of the unrest died down. In this case the unrest was reactionary and the partial success of nativist groups led to a normalization of exclusionary politics. For many, this is not a desirable outcome but it is one that has the effect of calming anxieties for some populations. We can view Brexit as one example of this type of outcome, although it is too soon to judge whether it will have the same effect on British politics in the years to come.
3. The Civil Rights Movement had more complicated outcomes. The protests of the early 1960s ended in partial success with the adoption of the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act. This achievement led to a split within the movement. The more radical element continued to struggle, sometimes violently. Part of the unrest of the period was also channeled into the anti-Vietnam protests and so the contention did not really end but rather spread to a broader audience. Eventually this troubled period produced an enormous conservative backlash, ushering “law and order” Richard Nixon into office and with him a quieter and more conservative period.
Although all of these periods led to an in immediate conservative reaction, they ultimately led to slow processes of progress for minorities. As the once the Rolling Stone’s and now Donald Trump’s campaign song says, “You can’t always get what you want,” but even a reactionary period is never fixed or complete. Once ideas are released into the public discourse they leave a mark on citizens and shape their demands and expectations. In sum, we should not expect anything good to come out of these incredibly divided times in the near term. But participation in politics in and of itself is not a bad thing, and bringing people into the political process has slow and diffuse benefits.