Studio portrait of Sid Salter. (photo by Beth Wynn / © Mississippi State University)

**Contribution from Sid Salter 

It is easy to read current social media posts and Tweets and conclude that American political division has never been stronger, farther apart and more distant from a reasonable path forward as a united nation than exists today.

Our social media, as well as our broadcast and streaming platforms, feature the lowest forms of personal and political vitriol. Threats of violence and mayhem are common. And the things said after calamities like the Uvalde school shootings to defend the Second Amendment defy reason and logic.

It no longer seems enough to argue over partisan political policies or strategies. Today’s political rhetoric is more provocative and incendiary, and it’s made worse by the fact that much of it comes from anonymous sources who are too cowardly to own their words or accusations. They hide behind pseudonyms and throw their rhetorical rocks in a manner mindful of Mayberry’s Ernest T. Bass.

Since the American Revolution, the serious, often violent political division has existed in what would eventually become the United States. “Loyalists” who were loyal to the British Crown were at fiery political odds with “Patriots” who supported the revolution and independence from British rule.

Less than a century later, the nation would struggle with the evil of slavery. That bloody struggle – literally and figuratively pitting brother against brother – cost the lives of some 620,000 Americans fighting for the North and the South. But not even that mighty conflict and the bloody legacies of Gettysburg, Antietam, Shiloh and Vicksburg truly settled the issue of slavery in practice for much of the nation – and particularly in the South.

Before he was elected president, then Illinois U.S. Senate candidate Abraham Lincoln made a speech on June 16, 1858, on the steps of the Illinois State Capitol in Springfield in which he said:

“A house divided against itself, cannot stand. I believe this government cannot endure permanently half slave and half free. I do not expect the Union to be dissolved — I do not expect the house to fall — but I do expect it will cease to be divided. It will become all one thing or all the other.

“Either the opponents of slavery will arrest the further spread of it and place it where the public mind shall rest in the belief that it is in the course of ultimate extinction; or its advocates will push it forward, till it shall become lawful in all the States, old as well as new — North as well as South,” Lincoln said. As history records, Lincoln would not live to see his vision in full practice.

The adoption of the 13th, 14th and 15th amendments made national promises of fairness, equality and freedom from discrimination that the arduous process of Reconstruction and the recalcitrance of Southern state legislatures made difficult if not impossible to keep. The Civil War was over in 1865. But another century would pass before America adopted and began to enforce the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

The nation’s ongoing struggle with civil rights would cross-pollinate with increasing distrust of the federal government brought on by the interminable Vietnam Conflict – that preoccupied six consecutive U.S, presidents from Harry Truman to Dwight Eisenhower to John F. Kennedy to Lyndon Johnson to Richard Nixon to Gerald Ford.

America’s young people took up the cause against Vietnam and by the Nixon Administration and the quagmire of the Watergate scandal – confidence in the U.S. federal government hit an all-time low.

Washington Post chief government correspondent Dan Balz wrote in 2022 on the 50th anniversary of Watergate: “Watergate, along with the Vietnam War, marked a dividing line between old and new, ushering in a changed landscape for politics and public life — from a period in which Americans trusted their government to a period in which that trust was broken and never truly restored.”

Today’s national partisan war of words is disheartening and dangerous, if for no other reason than some take the rhetoric seriously and are inclined to act upon it. Lost in this deluge of political bile and bombast is the fact that we are all Americans. What we ultimately leave to our children and grandchildren depends on our ability to remember that and put it into practice.