Leonard Pitts: We’ve lost the ability to have a common national identity

We don’t need more unity.

Apologies to Sean Penn, who last week made an earnest case for that virtue in an appearance with -- of all people -- Sean Hannity on Fox “News.” The actor was discussing “what I experienced emotionally” in Ukraine, where he had been filming a documentary when Russia invaded.

“We all talk about how divided things are here,” he said, “but when you step into a country of such incredible unity, you realize what we’ve all been missing.”

It’s a seductive argument. Penn is hardly alone in sensing that something important has gone missing from America. And when you consider the besieged people of Ukraine, all pulling together, striking as a single fist against a common foe, it’s natural to identify the missing thing as unity.

But what we are seeing in Ukraine is the predictable byproduct of an immediate existential threat. Take away the threat and the unity will go with it. This is not to demean the stubborn, inspiring heroism of the Ukrainian people. It is only to say that it reflects the exigency of the crisis -- not some essential nobility of character that this country lacks. If you doubt that, recall how unified Americans were after September 11 and December 7. Then recall how quickly we returned to our bickersome ways.

So, the view from this pew is that what has gone missing from this country is not some idealized unity. Rather, it is something more profound. We no longer share a narrative. We no longer have a common thread.

A poll released last week by Economist/YouGov testifies eloquently to this. The survey, which asked 1,500 Americans which news organizations they trust the most, came back with a truly stunning result:

Republicans trust almost nothing.

Even Fox is trusted only by a bare majority (53%). And the rankings go downhill from there.

PBS? Twenty percent.

The Washington Post? Sixteen percent.

CNN? Eleven percent.

It turns out The Wall Street Journal, widely considered the most reputable conservative-leaning news organization in the country, is trusted by more Democrats (52%) than Republicans (27%).

On its website, YouGovAmerica represents these results with a graphic of dots on a grid. It’s a simple illustration, but the gaping distances between red dots and blue ones makes for an arresting visual. It’s a map of national dysfunction, of a people pulling away from themselves.

So no, unity is not the problem. Let some international enemy bomb these shores and you’ll have all the unity you can stand.

What Americans have lost -- to be painfully accurate, what Republicans have trashed in pursuit of power -- is the willingness and ability to share a common national identity. The average Republican trusts almost no mainstream source of information. As a result, Americans no longer proceed from the same baseline assumptions, are no longer driven by the same national aspirations, no longer understand the meaning and mission of their country in the same way.

That’s the state of this union. America is a nation in stasis, getting nowhere because it is simultaneously being pulled in opposite directions toward fundamentally different visions. The need to fix this -- better education in civics, history, critical thinking and media literacy along with improved policing of social media -- could hardly be more urgent. After all, if you pull a thing in different directions at the same time, it can’t move.

But it can break.

Leonard Pitts Jr.

Leonard Pitts Jr. is a columnist for the Miami Herald. lpitts@miamiherald.com