War and international conflict are crude but effective forges of discipline and unity. We often look back on mid-Twentieth Century America as a golden era of civic comity. We overlook the extent to which the crucible of World War II and then the Cold War, fought against enemies pursuing values and ways of life conflicting sharply with our own, brought us – “pushed” may be the better verb – closer together. The pressure of these global struggles helped make our failures to live up to our ideals, e.g., with racial segregation, ultimately unbearable for our society to maintain. Moreover, the external existential threats worked to constrain the lengths political leaders and parties felt at liberty to go in attacking one another.
Confronting two increasingly allied authoritarian systems may once again force us to burnish how we practice democracy and chasten our internal rivalries. The ups and downs of the past several years have made it clear that the world’s liberal democracies will need American leadership to prevail in this contest. The U.S. will not be able to wear the mantle if our democracy continues to be bedeviled by take-no-prisoners partisanship or by leaders who scoff at rather than uphold their responsibility to foster a spirit of forbearance and reflective patriotism among their followers. The health of freedom in the world and democracy in America are thus interdependent; they will either rise or keep falling together.