Divided We Fall book cover and author David French

Divided We Fall

Americans choose party affiliation over national identity at our own peril.

That negative polarization keeps us from uniting and using one of our country’s best designs: federalism, which could allow for disparate state-by-state experiments. So argued David French, the conservative political commentator in his fall 2020 book Divided We Fall: America’s Secession Threat and How to Restore Our Nation.

French, a pro life conservative Christian lawyer and Iraq War veteran, has wedged himself in a debate about the future of the Republican Party, and so American life. “We are in a cold civil war,” he writes.

One cause? Tolerance: conservatives hate it and liberals misunderstand it, he writes. Or as he says Scott Alexander argues: Tolerance is misused by liberals to mean liking marginalized groups, but tolerance means tolerating something so tolerance is about tolerating out groups, not opinions you already agree with. French, who formerly lived in Center City Philadelphia while leading a free speech nonprofit, has annoyed many corners of American public life, but I appreciated his book and perspective. It’s worth reading. Below I share my notes from the book for future reference.

My notes:

  • Negative polarization: we are in a party because we loathe the other side more than love our side
  • “Partisans say don’t judge us by our crazy few but will then look at the other side and say those crazies prove what they all stand for.”
  • James Madison: “Liberty is to faction what air is to fire, an aliment without which it instantly expires.” You can’t get rid of factions so we need many competing factions
  • Alexis de Tocqueville argued Americans used associations where the English used lords and French used government
  • Frederick Douglass: free speech is “the dread of tyrants”
  • “The relentless momentum of out mutual contempt”
  • Bill Bishop influential 2008 “big sort” book demonstrating how many more of us live in landslide counties for non-competitive elections
  • Four factors for secession: contiguous regions; cultural agreement; threatened and lives imminently risked
  • A 1999 paper by Cass Sunstein identified “the law of group polarization,” which shows we get more extreme when we spend time with people who agree with us
  • Pre-deliberation bias: groups of like minded people become more extreme. “We’d rather be clearly wrong than clearly alone” brings about Information cascades
  • Martin Luther is attributed as saying: “I’d rather be ruled by a wise Turk than by a foolish Christian.”
  • Lillliana Mason argues in her 2018 book Uncivil Agreement that party affiliation is now a mega identity more relatable than American identity
  • Ben Sasse in his 2018 book Them: Why We Hate Each Other–and How to Heal suggested we could group Americans into the mobile, the rooted and the stuck
  • The Overton window concept comes from Joseph Overton (1960-2002)
  • Andrew Breitbart’s doctrine: politics is downstream from culture
  • Gallup poll: students choose inclusivity over free speech
  • Why has free speech and inclusivity been put at odds though? The real tension is freedom and power.
  • Greg Lukianoff argues we are training young Americans to “unlearn liberty”
  • Racism has a definition; Author argues that when progressives say anti-white racism doesn’t exist are changing definition
  • Author writes of Calexit (California) and Texit (Texas)
  • Today has parallels to 1850s and 1930s, when there was a partisan battle and one side won and then dominated politics
  • Author responds to a prominent 2019 criticism of him titled “‘Against David French-ism” (with other debate) and the progressive Peter Leyden’s essay “The Great Lesson of California in America’s New Civil War”. Author says the “fight and win” model of the past won’t work and wil cause more extremism
  • The American Revolution was not a “cultural wrecking ball” like the French Revolution .
  • Two big ideas from Madison’s pluralistic society: defend the rights of individuals with different views and celebrate different state approaches
  • “Liberalism and pluralism falter in the face of hatred and intolerance.”
  • Tolerance: conservatives hate it and liberals misunderstand it
  • Scott Alexander: Tolerance is misused by liberals to mean liking marginalized groups. But tolerance means tolerating something so tolerance is about tolerating out groups.
  • “When there’s nothing to forgive… There’s no tolerance.”
  • “As long as the reason of man continues fallible “Madison says “and he is at liberty to exercise it, different opinions will be formed.”
  • Accenture and Girls Who Code research showing 82% of a generation of computer science grads were men; author asks: is it really all bias?
  • Robert Jackson in Supreme Court in 1942: “To believe that patriotism will not flourish if patriotic ceremonies are voluntary and spontaneous instead of a compulsory routine is to make an unflattering estimate of the appeal of our institutions to free minds.”
  • More in Common Project showed more news consumption made people less knowledgeable
  • In 2006 blogger Kevin Drum’s reader came up with “nutpicking” to describe finding worst commenter to represent a political opponent
  • In his writing, George Washington frequently cited (at least 50 times) a biblical passage from Micah that also made it into the Broadway play HAMILTON: Michah 4:4: “Everyone will sit under their own vine and under their own fig tree, and no one will make them afraid.”
  • Federalism is our answer: let California be California and Texas be Texas. Progressives push on Jim Crow example but when will we know we are past that?
  • Obama sued Arizona; Trump sued California for respective immigration laws even though both could have been signs of federalism
  • “Federalism ends with the Bill of Rights begins” 229
  • Sanctuary status is fine: the federal government can be told they have to police with their own resources
  • California can do its own environmental and health policy but not attack the Bill of Rights, author argues
  • Author criticizes Obamacare’s national rollout followed Romneycare too quickly. Should have rolled out in more states first. Massachusetts has low rates of non insurance and a balanced budget, then passed on a partisan basis across an entire country.
  • We have two culture wars: left/right and decency/indecency
  • John Adams wrote in a 1798 letter on our Constitution’s limitations as federalism: “we have no government armed with power capable of contending with human passions unbridled by morality and religion. Avarice, ambition, revenge, or gallantry, would break the strongest chords of our Constitution as a whale goes through a net”.
  • Patriotism vs nationalism
  • Apostle Paul: “We see through a glass, darkly” we know in part

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