the exhausted American

The Intramuralist wrote about respected economist David French’s eye-opening book, “Divided We Fall,” addressing potential secession… two years ago. Note what the author so poignantly shares now, as written recently in The Dispatch:

“… I’m growing increasingly wary of the binary analysis of American life. The more I travel this country post-pandemic, the more I encounter the third faction—the ‘exhausted majority’ first identified by More in Common’s ’Hidden Tribes’ survey all the way back in 2018. Under this analysis, America isn’t just red and blue. It’s red and blue and just plain tired.

Who are these tired Americans? The polling answer from the survey is the two-thirds of our neighbors and citizens (from across the political spectrum) who are fed up with polarization, forgotten in public discourse, flexible in their views, and still believe we can find common ground

The exhausted American is in my email inbox, writing personal, anguished letters about lost relationships. The radicalized American is in my Twitter feed, furious at any deviation from the party line. The radicalized American is capturing institutions, making life miserable for dissenters left or right. The exhausted American doesn’t know where to go. Who speaks for them?

The exhausted American does not make a religion out of politics, and is thus at a disadvantage when confronting the ferocity and zeal of the true political believer. 

The exhausted American is hungry for simple decency, and will seek out friendships on the left and the right, so long as respect trumps differences. Even the most extreme disagreements are manageable so long as a friend is willing to listen and learn, and you’re willing to listen and learn in return. 

The exhausted majority is also the hope for America. 

Make no mistake, the answer is not found in the polarized wings. Each side has too much animosity to reach any kind of accommodation and too little power to achieve any kind of permanent triumph. In my book, I posited that federalism could be an answer to our political divide, but partisan animosity has grown so great that state governments are wielding local power in the service of national fights. 

State legislation has become both performative and punitive, with a focus on rewarding friends and punishing enemies. California, for example, currently bans state-funded and state-sponsored travel to 20 American states, a form of economic sanction designed to punish states that California deems insufficiently protective of LGBT rights. Florida has enacted a broad range of laws that purport to crack down on ‘wokeness’ and punish expression with which the state disagrees. 

But what happens when the exhausted majority gets just a little bit energetic? It can check the excesses of left and right. In San Francisco an exhausted progressive majority recalled radical school board members and a radical district attorney. In the Southern Baptist Convention, an exhausted conservative majority has now twice turned back a politically radicalized and vocal fundamentalist wing that would transform the SBC into a MAGA denomination. 

I know and have met people who both organized and voted for the San Francisco recall. I know and have met people who resisted the fundamentalist takeover of the SBC. And the two groups share something important in common. While they’re both political in the sense that they have political values, politics is ultimately less important to their day-to-day lives than it is to their most motivated opponents. 

Invariably this means that the exhausted majority’s political engagement is more occasional or episodic than it is constant or relentless. The polarized wings never rest. The exhausted majority stirs itself when the situation is dire, exerts its will, and then returns to its true passions—whether that’s family, work, or faith. 

There was a time when I lived my life on the polarized wings. I spent more time worried about ‘the left’ than I spent thinking through what part my partisanship played in fraying the American social fabric. I saw the triumph of my political foes as a greater threat to the nation than the partisan conflict itself. 

I now hold a different view, one that’s closer to the view of America’s wisest founders at their most prescient moments. George Washington, in his farewell address, warned his countrymen against the dangers of factionalism and regionalism. James Madison, in Federalist 10, warned against the ‘violence of faction.’

Abraham Lincoln, the indispensable architect of America’s second founding, told the Young Men’s Lyceum of Springfield, Illinois, ‘At what point then is the approach of danger to be expected? I answer, if it ever reach us, it must spring up amongst us. It cannot come from abroad. If destruction be our lot, we must ourselves be its author and finisher. As a nation of freemen, we must live through all time, or die by suicide.’

I’m concerned about our national union. I’m more concerned than I was when I wrote my book warning about the possibility of secession. But I also know that the solution to our challenge is hiding in plain sight. It’s the great bulk of the American people—the fed up, forgotten, flexible Americans who span the ideological spectrum yet don’t completely identify as red or blue. 

This July Fourth, I’m both proud to be an American and convinced that our best days can still lie ahead of us. But not if we’re too tired to engage. The exhausted majority has to get energetic, even if only for a time, to rescue America from the friends, families, and neighbors who are tearing it apart.”



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