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Why is America so divided? And can Alaska help?

  • Author: Charles Wohlforth
    | Opinion
  • Updated: May 17
  • Published May 17

These are the scariest times I remember for our country. I've never before worried about our ability to hold together.

America's strength comes from taking turns. In American politics you don't flip the game board and take the fight outside. You remember your adversary is American, too.

The divisiveness in today's politics is threatening that consensus and, for the first time since the Civil War, threatening the confidence that the nation is one. When enough people reject the validity of others as Americans, our democracy is dead.

I've been reading a lot about why this is happening and thinking about how it relates to Alaska. Are we exceptional? Are we above the ugliness?

A lot of the analysis comes in the form of asking why Donald Trump won the presidency. That's not my question today, because the divisions long predate his election. But the vote did illuminate the issues, like the flash of a strobe light.

I don't think Trump is to blame for the problem, but he exploited it. The question is, why did that work?

I've found three credible explanations. They are not mutually exclusive.

The economic explanation has received the most attention. It fits with Trump's electoral map. He won states with workers who have not benefited from the economic recovery.

This idea is that widening income inequality has split America's social classes into distant camps. On the coasts, a tech-driven economic boom is on, but mid-American blue collar workers with less education have been left behind.

The division is real and has happened rapidly. In 2017, the richest 10 percent of Americans owned 77 percent of the nation's wealth, the most in our history. The top 20 richest individual Americans have as much wealth as the bottom half the population, 152 million people.

As David Cole wrote recently, the inventors of democracy didn't think it would work with extremes of rich and poor. It would become a war between the classes. America's founders absorbed these ideas from the Enlightenment philosophers and Aristotle.

But the electoral facts don't fit neatly with this theory. Trump voters' average incomes were higher than those of Hillary Clinton voters. Race was a better predictor of who would vote for Trump than class.

Writers such as Ta-Nehisi Coates charge that the class idea is just a smokescreen for raw, resurgent racism. He produces evidence that Trump tapped into a white backlash against the election of President Obama and other changes in society.

In fact, race is only one element of the rapid social changes that threaten traditional roles and values.

Look what has happened in the last three decades: rapid advance of racial, gender and LGBT equality, migration from the global south, the economic rise of Asia, technology that devalues labor and rewards education, and the resulting realignment of economic and social winners.

Nostalgia is a powerful emotion. The loss of privilege feels like a loss of Americanness to some Americans, loss of Germanness to some Germans — as the reaction is happening in Europe. Maybe even Islamic extremists feel it, too, as they lash out violently against modernity.

A third line of analysis combines economic and racial identity. Writer Amy Chua uses the word "tribes" for these groups (a term I am not comfortable taking from its proper indigenous use), as she explains how America has evolved.

Chua says the divisions we see today are not new, we've always belonged to tribes of white, black, rich and poor. But until now, only one tribe ruled, the affluent whites. They held economic power and the electoral majority as well.

In Chua's view, the increase of minorities has made America like a developing nation with deep tribal divisions in which a minority tribe holds the wealth. That's a situation in which democracy has never worked.

Of course, most of us aren't members of tribes as in those in truly tribal nations. But there are unsettling similarities.

The equality of wealth that the founding fathers thought was essential to democracy — and that existed in the early United States — applied only to their own small set of the population, white land-owning men. The people they held as slaves didn't count.

By that light, American unity was never more than domination.

I don't buy all of any of these theories. But I buy enough to be discouraged.

Alaska offers a contrast. Alaska voted for Trump, but for none of the reasons these writers cite.

Here we vote for president like other Americans vote for sheriff. On local issues. Who will let us drill more oil?

Alaska has notable income equality compared to the rest of the U.S. We're too new for old fortunes and we don't have the industries — finance and tech — that create new fortunes. On the lower end, we have the Alaska Permanent Fund dividend providing a basic income.

Alaska has a nasty history of segregation and racial oppression, especially against Alaska Natives, but Native economic power has helped transform that.

Today, evidence of racial conflict is less than in many places in the country. Anchorage has some of the most racially integrated schools and neighborhoods in the U.S. Incidents like those that motivated the Black Lives Matter movement spawned community dialogue, but didn't flash into street protest.

Alaska publicly grappled with racism in a big way in the 1990s under Gov. Tony Knowles. In Anchorage, Mayor Rick Mystrom, a Republican, remade his city's identity to be welcoming of diversity, just as an influx of immigrants was beginning a huge demographic shift.

There are simple lessons here.

Policy makes a difference in creating a fair economic system and connecting citizens. A strong economic safety net and a basic income can encourage the equality and "good fellowship" that Aristotle said was necessary for democracy.

And leadership makes a difference in matters of race.

America's story is about the struggle with prejudice. It's what we fought our Civil War over. Our survival may depend on resolving it.

The views expressed here are the writer's and are not necessarily endorsed by the Anchorage Daily News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary(at)adn.com. Send submissions shorter than 200 words to letters@adn.com or click here to submit via any web browser.

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