It feels like chaotic 1968 all over again — but worse

The Mercury News Weekend - - OTHER VIEWS - By Vic­tor Davis Han­son Vic­tor Davis Han­son is a syn­di­cated columnist.

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 loom­ing re­ces­sion 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 a 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. Re­cent trau­matic hur­ri­canes seem to re­flect the coun­try’s hu­man tur­moil.

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.

Cen­tury-old mute stone stat­ues are torn down in the dead of night, ap­par­ently on the the­ory that by at­tack­ing the Con­fed­er­ate dead, the lives of the liv­ing might im­prove.

All the old stand­bys of Amer­i­can life seem to be erod­ing. The Na­tional Foot­ball League is im­plod­ing as it de­volves into a po­lit­i­cal cir­cus. Mul­ti­mil­lion- aire play­ers refuse to stand for the na­tional an­them, turn­ing off mil­lions of fans whose for­mer loy­al­ties paid their salaries. Pol­i­tics — or rather a pro­gres­sive ha­tred of the provoca­tive Don­ald Trump — per­me­ates al­most ev­ery nook and cranny of pop­u­lar cul­ture.

The new al­le­giance of the me­dia, late-night tele­vi­sion, stand-up com­edy, Hol­ly­wood, pro­fes­sional sports and uni­ver­si­ties is com­mit­ted to lib­eral ser­mo­niz­ing. Po­lit­i­cally cor­rect ob­scen­ity and vul­gar­ity among celebri­ties and en­ter­tain­ers is a sub­sti­tute for tal­ent, even as Hol­ly­wood is wracked by sex­ual ha­rass­ment scan­dals and other per­ver­si­ties.

The smears “racist,” “fas­cist,” “white priv­i­lege” and “Nazi” — like “com­mie” of the 1950s — are so overused as to be­come mean­ing­less. There is now less free speech on cam­pus than dur­ing the McCarthy era of the early 1950s.

As was the case in 1968, the world abroad is also fall­ing apart.

The Euro­pean Union, model of the fu­ture, is un­rav­el­ing. The failed state of North Korea claims that it has nu­clear-tipped mis­siles ca­pa­ble of reach­ing Amer­ica’s West Coast — and ap­par­ently wants some sort of bribe not to launch them. Iran is likely to fol­low the North Korea nu­clear tra­jec­tory.

Is the chaos of 2017 a cathar­sis — a nec­es­sary and long over­due purge of dan­ger­ous and ne­glected patholo­gies? Will the bed­lam within the United States 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 rough- shod over es­tab­lish­ment ex­perts and ex­pe­ri­enced bu­reau­crats? Or is the cri­sis too lit­tle democ­racy, as pop­ulists strive to de­throne a scan­dal-plagued, an­tidemo­cratic, in­com­pe­tent and over­rated en­trenched elite?

Nei­ther tra­di­tional po­lit­i­cal party has any an­swers. Democrats are be­ing over­whelmed by the iden­tity pol­i­tics and so­cial­ism of pro­gres­sives. Repub­li­cans are torn asun­der between up­start pop­ulist na­tion­al­ists and the cal­ci­fied es­tab­lish­ment sta­tus quo.

Yet for all the so­cial in­sta­bil­ity and me­dia hys­te­ria, 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. Cor­po­rate prof­its are up. En­ergy pro­duc­tion has ex­panded. 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.

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