It's 1968 all over again
Almost a half-century ago, in 1968, the United States seemed to be falling apart.
The Vietnam War, a bitter and close presidential election, antiwar 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 the 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.
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 — and more 50/50, with the two liberal coasts pitted against red-state America in between.
All the old standbys of American life seem to be eroding. The National Football League is imploding as it devolves into a political circus. Politics — or rather, progressive hatred of the provocative Trump — permeates almost every nook and cranny of popular culture.
The smears “racist,” “fascist,” “white privilege” and “Nazi” — like “commie” in the 1950s — are so overused as to become meaningless.
Is the chaos of 2017 a catharsis — a necessary and long overdue purge of dangerous and neglected pathologies? Will the bedlam 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 progressives' identity politics and socialism. Republicans are torn asunder between upstart populist nationalists and the calcified establishment status quo.
Yet 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. 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 at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University. George F. Will is off today.