UW News

April 9, 2021

Divided America needs ‘new, more viable history’: A talk with Dan Chirot

UW News

Dan Chirot, University of Washington professor of international studies, says he would have laughed at the suggestion, even 10 years ago, that the United States could be heading toward insurrection or civil war. But in the wake of the Trump administration “and its sorry climax on January 6,” he says, “I no longer believe this is a laughing matter.”

Dan Chirot

Chirot, also a sociology faculty member, became professor emeritus this spring. He has joined the editorial board of The American Purpose, a moderately conservative online publication that he said is responding to the growing divide by “trying to strengthen the middle.” The publication seeks to defend liberal democracy “not in the modern American political sense, but in the classical sense” of ensuring equal protection under the law, basic civil liberties and respect for individual rights.

In February he published an essay on the site titled “1619 vs. 1776” calling for empathy and compromise in creating a new, equitably shared American narrative. Though “the United States is not about to dissolve” like the Austro-Hungarian or Soviet empires in their 20th century times of crisis, Chirot wrote, “our deep divisions will not heal unless a new, more viable history comes to sustain national unity.”

Chirot is the author of the 2020 book “You Say You Want a Revolution?: Radical Idealism and its Tragic Consequences,” which he discussed with UW Notebook last April. Given the unprecedented events of the last year, and January 6, 2021, a follow-up conversation seemed appropriate.

In the essay you discuss the role of commonly held historical narratives and myths in the life of nations. “We no longer have a common history,” you write. “This is a root cause of American division … the historical visions of the left and right cannot be bridged because they are based on drastically different histories.” Did we ever really have a true common history?

We did have a common history that excluded African-Americans and others. At one time large numbers of new immigrants were also excluded: Irish, Chinese, Japanese, Italians and Jews. Native Americans were acknowledged only as marginal people slated for disappearance. Gradually most of these groups were absorbed into a common history that celebrated the “melting pot” theory of America. With the civil rights revolution of the 1960s and 1970s African-Americans were brought in too.

Since the 1990s, this hard-won, emerging but still incomplete consensus has collapsed. Many people had never accepted it, but they appeared to be a diminishing number of racist whites. Unfortunately the rise of a new far right fueled by religious fundamentalists, Southern whites, and an increasingly insecure white rural and working class has broken the consensus. Traditionally conservative Republicans used the culture wars to get their tax cuts and extra privileges, but they lost control of the narrative. First Newt Gingrich and then Trump took advantage, and now we are as far from having a consensus about our history as we were in the old days. We increasingly have two entirely different stories. In one, America has always been white and blameless with others being marginal and treated pretty well. In the other, whites are guilty of centuries of prejudice and all those stories about democracy and a melting pot were lies. The more we get pulled toward either one of these versions of our history, the less likely that we will begin to heal our deep divisions.

Empathy and compromise will be needed to create “a new, more viable history” to bring forward, you write. How could such a process begin? And what might the result look like?
A well-reviewed 2015 book I wrote with Scott Montgomery made the claim that much ideology has started when leading intellectuals put forward new ideas. That was certainly the case with the 17th and 18th century Enlightenment and the consequent great changes in thinking in the 19th and 20th centuries. I still believe this. So professional intellectuals in universities and among other public intellectuals have to do their part. My sense is that politically active university faculties are very far from having recognized this.

It is in a way far easier to take sides by emphasizing all the wrongs committed by the United States. Finding a synthesis requires much harder work. Balancing an honest appraisal of past sins and past accomplishments at the same time is an effort. There is also a growing but still small effort by some slightly right-of-center public intellectuals (Francis Fukuyama and Larry Diamond at Stanford, for example) to do this too. The hope is that decent former moderate conservatives can break decisively with the dishonesty of the far right and somewhat moderate leftist intellectuals can join them in the project of creating a viable historical synthesis.

A lot of “willful forgetting” goes into the making and maintaining of a nation, you write. “And a good deal of that forgetting is now being remembered.” You ask: “If so much is now being unforgotten, can the nation survive?” What were your conclusions?

As I have spelled out above, we cannot forget past wrongs, but that does not mean that we should throw out past efforts to remedy those wrongs. There is effective political mobilization to counter the most egregious efforts to suppress voting rights and police brutality. But that needs to be accompanied by a new historical synthesis that will eventually be taught in schools. This is a generational project that will take a couple of decades, at best.

With the Biden administration underway, what foreign policy and international matters do you think need the most attention, diplomacy and possibly healing?

Basically, the United States has to help restore faith in democracy by starting at home. It needs to rally its natural foreign allies and regain their trust. We have to find a way of dealing with China while avoiding war. The details are daunting. Something that is crucial and will also take time is to rebuild our demoralized diplomatic service and the many parts of our government that participate in conducting foreign policy (for example the U.S. Trade Representative’s office, parts of Treasury, Commerce, intelligence, and of course the State Department). That goes for the even larger core of necessary experts to staff our federal government.

The Biden administration recognizes this. Unfortunately, the Trump period greatly accelerated the rot, but that had been underway for a long time before. Modern societies need effective government, and that can only work if there is a capable civil service guided by expertise.

You discuss insurrection and revolt in your 2020 book. The Jan. 6 riot made the topic all too real to Americans. What are your thoughts on the meaning of that event? 

There were two main conclusions I drew in the book. One is that when a society does not address its major problems for a long time, the potential for revolution increases. That has happened in the United States. Growing inequality, our bizarrely complex health care system, infrastructural decay, the rise in overt racism, the inability of Congress to pass laws, the lack of help for those hurt by globalization, and many other issues have accumulated. That is dangerously destabilizing.

The second conclusion I drew is that once a potentially revolutionary period arrives, all the forces at work strengthen the extremes. The middle collapses, civil war ensues, and whether the far right or far left wins, the results tend to be catastrophic. That does not always happen, but such a dire result is too common. It can no longer be ruled out for the United States. If anyone had told me that even 10 years ago I would have laughed. After the Trump administration and its sorry climax on January 6, I no longer believe this is a laughing matter.

Looking forward, what causes you the most concern? And what, if anything, are you able to feel optimistic about?

The last time the United States was so divided we had a terrible civil war. We are far from that now, but much closer than just a few years ago. I think I do see some reaction against the extremes in both popular opinion and even among some business elites. I hope that we as professional academic intellectuals learn to join in the efforts to strengthen enlightened moderation.