For David Moss, author of Democracy: A Case Study, history provides a guide for coping with disagreement in a nation as vast as the United States. “Robust faith in the democracy itself has the power to transform our differences from a potentially grave weakness into a precious source of strength,” he writes, drawing on an insight that great American statesmen have expressed from the beginning:
In 1776, not long after the Continental Congress approved the Declaration of Independence, Benjamin Franklin plucked the Latin words “E Pluribus Unum” from the cover of a literary magazine and recommended them as a motto for the nation. E Pluribus Unum – out of many, one.
It was a remarkable aspiration for a collection of colonies perhaps more notable for their differences than for what they had in common. But Franklin was, as usual, extraordinarily insightful – and foresightful. He saw from the republic’s first breath that the unique promise of America lay in harnessing difference toward a common purpose through self-governance.
Fraught eras are not new.
“Across the nation’s history, the practice of democracy has always been rooted in conflict, including plenty of bare knuckle politics stemming from intense partisan, ideological, and sectional differences,” Moss observes. “The critical question is what makes this conflict productive rather than destructive. How can we distinguish the political conflict of the late 1850s that ultimately deteriorated into the violence of the Civil War from the political conflict of so many other periods that allowed for the peaceful resolution of differences and fostered immense progress over time?”