An atmosphere of crisis is enveloping the U.S. after a traumatic week, leaving politicians, academic experts and private citizens searching for an explanation for the anger roiling the nation.
The killing of five police officers in Dallas in a Thursday evening ambush followed hard on the heels of two instances where black men were killed in deeply contentious circumstances by law enforcement: Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge, La., and Philando Castile in Falcon Heights, Minn.
As the nation was reeling from those events, there were also reports that a shooter in Tennessee who had killed one person earlier Thursday appeared to have been motivated by anger against police officers. There was panic at another rally in Portland, Ore., Thursday evening when an onlooker apparently antagonistic to protestors marching against police violence drew a weapon.
The series of events has created a sense that the social fabric is torn — one point upon which people in a deeply polarized country agree.
“America is broken,” movie director Spike Lee tweeted on Friday. “America is driving toward the abyss and it’s time we hit the brakes” was the headline on a story on the conservative National Review website.
The atmosphere is so febrile that even some public figures who have themselves been accused of divisiveness in the past are emphasizing the need to seek common ground.
“We have got to make real change because otherwise these extremists exploit the anxiety of the people,” civil rights campaigner Rev. Al Sharpton told The Hill. “Most people want to see a balanced system where the police are respected and can do their job, and at the same time citizens are protected. After that, extremists have the floor.”
Others compared the current climate to 1968, a tumultuous year that saw the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Sen. Robert F. Kennedy, then a candidate for president, as well as riots in major cities and continuing friction over the Vietnam War.
“We had the riots, we had cities burning, the rise of the Black Panther Party, turbulence in the country,” said broadcaster and writer Earl Ofari Hutchinson. “But driving everything — the thing that stuck out — was the polarization, the division. We fast forward almost 50 years later and we are seeing a return of that sort of mentality.”
The comparison with 1968 is a fraught one, however, with some experts suggesting that the nation’s current troubles fail to rise to that level, significant though they are.
“It is not 1968. Many things have changed,” said Julian Zelizer, a Princeton professor of history and public affairs, on Friday. “Even the violence we saw last night pales by comparison with the rioting that took place throughout the 1960s.”
Whatever the merits of particular historic parallels, however, there is little doubt that the nation is in uncommonly volatile shape. While vexing questions of race and the criminal justice system are a big part of that, it also involves other issues, from economic insecurity to disenchantment with the political system.
Political polarization has also been exacerbated by the explosive growth in social media and the increased fragmentation of traditional media.
Cable news and talk radio give people the option to receive their information from sources that comport with their ideological leanings — and often speak with a shrill voice. On Friday, conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh said Black Lives Matter was “becoming a terrorist group committing hate crimes.”
The tendency to find reinforcement of one’s own views in social media is also well documented.
A 2014 study by the Pew Research Center found a significant rise in political polarization over the previous two decades.
The proportion of Democrats who said they held a “very unfavorable” view of the Republican Party, and vice versa, had more than doubled between 1994 and 2014. A full 50 percent of people who held “consistently conservative” views — and 35 percent of people who held “consistently liberal” views — said it was important for them to live in a place “where most people share my political views.”
“There is less overlap on the basic issues and basic values than there was two decades ago,” Alec Tyson, a senior researcher at Pew, said.
On top of that, the effects of wage stagnation, income inequality and economic insecurity seem to be playing a part in creating the current combustible atmosphere.
“When people wake up in the morning trying to figure out how they are going to pay the bills, how they are going to put food on the table for their family, it leads to an anxiety that then leads to bad judgment and bad choices,” said Sharpton.
The strained political atmosphere is hardly calming the waters either. To liberals, the success of Donald TrumpDonald TrumpGOP grapples with chaotic Senate primary in Pennsylvania Trump social media startup receives commitment of billion from unidentified 'diverse group' of investors Iran thinks it has the upper hand in Vienna — here's why it doesn't MORE in winning the Republican nomination has been rooted in an antagonistic attitude toward minorities, women and other groups. To conservatives, the comments of Democrats such as President Obama and Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonRepublican Ohio Senate candidate slams JD Vance over previous Trump comments Budowsky: Why GOP donors flock to Manchin and Sinema Countering the ongoing Republican delusion MORE about controversial cases involving police have undercut public confidence in law enforcement with unpredictable consequences.
Ron Hosko, the president of the Law Enforcement Legal Defense Fund, asserted that while it was “perfectly appropriate” to have mature discussions about criminal justice reform, the president and others had taken things several steps too far.
Hosko argued that the “reflexive response” from Obama was to assume any interaction in which a black person died at the hands of police was rooted in racism.
“That is wholly inappropriate. He has shown ridiculously poor judgment. He is the divider-in-chief when he does that and he has done it repeatedly,” Hosko said.
Virtually no one on either side of the divide believes that a coming-together is imminent — especially when violence perpetrated by or against police might erupt again at any time, and the political world is moving full-speed ahead with a presidential campaign that is likely to be heated and bitter.
“The sides are pulling apart, they are certainly not pulling together,” said Hosko.
Hutchinson said: “I am deeply troubled because I do not see a way to bridge the gap that is there.”