Two powerful centrifugal forces are at work in the United States today. One breaks loose whole groups of people from a presumptively common center; the other sends individuals flying off. Both these decentering, separatist movements have their critics, who argue that the first is driven by a narrow-minded chauvinism and the second by mere selfishness. The separated groups appear to these critics as exclusive and intolerant tribes, the separated individuals as rootless and lonely egotists. Neither of these views is entirely wrong; neither is quite right. The two movements have to be considered together, set against the background of a democratic politics that opens a lot of room for centrifugal force. Understood in context, the two seem to me, despite the laws of physics, each one the other’s remedy.
The first of these forces is an increasingly strong articulation of group difference. It’s the articulation that is new, obviously, since difference itself—pluralism, even multiculturalism— has been a feature of American life from very early on. John Jay, in one of the Federalist Papers, describes the Americans as a people “descended from the same ancestors, speaking the same language, professing the same religion, attached to the same principles of government, very similar in manners and customs.”...
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