Michael KreponThe Decade of Factionalism and the Search for Icons

Lyric of the week:

“Stay in my corner, babe
Stay in my corner, please
Stay in my corner, babe
I will fight for you if you fight for me too”
–Dan Auerbach and the Arcs

The New York Times columnist Bret Stephens labels the past ten years of dashed hopes and damaged norms as the decade of disillusion.  It’s also the decade of demography, he notes, as Baby Boomers give way to supercharged Millennials. The America that Baby Boomers like me grew up in is shifting to a hyphenated, multi-hued society. One political party reflects emerging American demographics; the other doesn’t. The Republican Party requires minority rule to hold its ground, and it’s temporarily succeeding because minorities can become majorities in the Electoral College, the Senate and the Supreme Court.

The citizens of my country have been disillusioned before, and we will be again. Demographic and generational change in a nation of immigrants isn’t unusual. What’s truly important and dangerous about the decade of the 2010s in how deeply factional U.S. political life has become. A decade that began with Barack Obama in the White House where he crooned “Let’s Stay Together” before an Al Green concert will end with Donald Trump in residence, when he’s not at one of his golf courses or at the Mar-a-Lago Club. The decade will change but our divisions will remain.

Everything’s tribal now, especially our viewing habits. We’re all prisoners of fake news, even if we choose not to imbibe. Flip the channel for reinforcement, self-righteous indignation and, if drawn to conspiracy, your daily dose of poison and infection. People talking over each other, talking too loud, and talking too fast. We’ve stopped practicing how to listen, in part because the talking heads on the airwaves have so little new and interesting to say.

I’m feeling my age, dwelling in nostalgia, and longing for Walter Cronkite. There is no go-to newsperson at present to serve as an authoritative voice — another manifestation of factionalism. Historians are the last bastion of standard-keeping. Drop what you’re doing when Jon Meacham appears on the airwaves.

Modern day prophetic voices are hard to hear amidst the din of political argument. Biblical fire and brimstone do not work against a master of bombast. The most affecting prophetic voices draw from still waters within. We can hear these voices from pulpits and the arts. For my money, you can do no better than the Bard of Freehold. In 1992, Bruce Springsteen sang about 57 Channels (And Nothing On). In the woods where we live, the satellite brings 600 channels, 540 more than we want.

National icons define us. One indicator of the depths of U.S. factionalism is the icons we hold dear. Barack Obama and Donald Trump are icons to one tribe and the devil incarnate to another. In America’s past, icons have been national, not factional. What makes for iconic staying power? One definition is individuals who are true to themselves — who did it their way, with a nod to Frank Sinatra. Do we also expect our icons to reflect enduring values? This gets tricky, because icons don’t have to be angels. If, however, we make icons of those who trash our ideals, then we’re in way over our heads.

The end of a decade reminds us of how far we’ve traveled and how far we still have to go. We’ve come a long way in our sexual relations since old icons like Sean Connery’s James Bond and Rock Hudson. The definition of marriage has changed, blessed even by the Supreme Court, which has historically been the last bastion of minority rule. There’s a lesson here: when it’s about family, it’s easier for the walls to come down. Otherwise, we’re easily drawn to friction and division.

Some icons fade, and rightly so. Sean Connery’s James Bond and Rock Hudson haven’t aged well. Who will be the icons of this Millennial generation? Some prospective candidates, like Mark Zuckerberg and Sheryl Sandberg, have already fallen from their pedestals. Are we so divided that we won’t have national icons any more — other than sports legends? Who do you think will stand the test of time to become a national icon?

Factions are what our Founding Fathers warned us about. How could they have been so prescient? We’ve forgotten that regulation used to be about fairness as well as bigness. There’s plenty of talk on the campaign trail about dismantling bigness; I’m waiting for a presidential candidate to champion the old fairness doctrine.

Beginning in 1949, the Federal Communications Commission required that holders of broadcast licenses present honest, equitable and balanced broadcasting. The Reagan administration ditched the fairness doctrine in 1987 and as Sarah Palin, one of the ephemeral beneficiaries of our flight from truth, justice, and the American way, would say, “How’s that workin’ for ya?”

Now that we understand we’ve been sold a bill of goods about social media, are there remedies besides tuning out? How do we protect our democracy against lies and foreign manipulation?  I’m all about free speech, but not speech that yells “fire” in a crowded political marketplace.

I can’t end this post without at least a passing reference to arms control. So, if the 2010s are the Decade of Factionalism, what shall we call this decade as it relates to arms control? Is this too obvious? Are you too jaded? Or shall we have an end-of-the-year contest to characterize what’s become of arms control during this decade? The winner gets a signed copy with inscription of Better Safe Than Sorry: The Ironies of Living With the Bomb. It’s a classic. It’s also been overtaken by events.

If you are inclined to take a break from your to-do lists, Name That Decade. Name Your Icon. Who are the powerful prophetic voices you would like others to tune into?

During this holiday season, dear readers, may your gratitude wash over your grievances.


  1. Greg Thielmann (History)

    Nicely done Michael, although I was wondering whether “Rock Hunter” was an amalgam of Rock Hudson and Tab Hunter. (Either one probably helps make your point.)

    • Michael Krepon (History)

      Ha! A Freudian slip. Will fix
      Happy holidays, Greg

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