For decades, researchers like Mason have watched as multiple trends — white Americans’ resentment of Black Americans, growth in inequality, how we feel about political opponents — pointed this country in a dangerous direction. Any one of these things, on their own, can destabilize democracies and lead to violence, experts told us. We are grappling with some half dozen. And now the country has come to a place where it’s much, much easier to throw a punch than to work things out. None of that is likely to change just because we have a new administration focused on unity.
Underlying all the trends pushing Americans apart is a fundamental disagreement about who does and should have power. Should politicians strive to make a multicultural democracy devoted to solving social inequality? Or should they preserve a social hierarchy that allows white people (and in particular, white men) to hold disproportionate sway?
Trump made clear who he thought should be in power. His willingness to use racial slurs, enact racist policies and declare that Christians should have a privileged place in American life helped create a world where both left and right support political violence at about the same rates, but the right is more likely to act on it. But now that he’s gone, the fissure won’t just close behind him. And even if Biden were somehow able to unite warring sides, it would likely require a level of compromise that would do more harm than good.