No torture versus torture. Blue State versus RedState. Liberal versus Conservative. Fahrenheit 9/11versus The Passion of The Christ. America is ridingthe Polarized Express — a national train fastapproaching a fork in the tracks. One track leads tothe republic rediscovered. The other track, todictatorship and empire.

Sounds extreme?

Consider: we have seen this all before. In fact, justa hundred years ago, at the start of the last century,the politics of the “western” world was disturbinglyfamiliar to ours, with many nations of Europesimilarly on the Polarized Express — Germany, Spain,Russia, Italy and France among others.

Back then each nation saw a growing polarization oftheir electorate. Each nation’s story was a familiarfight between polarized groups, entrenched elitesversus oppressed under-classes. The names of thesepolarized groups varied from nation to nation:leftists, liberals, socialists, anarchists,communists and republicans on the left;conservatives, monarchists, aristocrats, militarists,fundamentalists and fascists on the right. But thebasic polarization of the divide was the same: thevoice of the people versus the voice of the élites.

These polarized groups fought over economic justice,over “family values,” over national pride, over thefear of anarchists (the terrorists of their day), overreligious values, over empire, over ethnicsuperiority. And as the polarization intensified sodid the politics and leadership of each nation,moving, election after election, from left to rightand then back again.

And in some nations — Germany, Italy, Russia andSpain — the polarization ultimately snapped the backof democracy. Extremisms of various sorts emerged witha sureness of purpose almost religious in intensity.These “isms” promised social safety and politicalclarity.

But not all nations on the Polarized Express werevictims of anti-democratic extremism. Not all nationslost their democratic soul for the sake of politicalclarity.

In one nation, one man’s story and another man’s wordswere a candle’s light in the dark saving a republicfrom collapse. It is their story that casts a faintlight of hope on the growing darkness in America.

France in the 1890s was also a nation on the PolarizedExpress. On one pole stood the republicans — socialists, centrists and liberals. And on the otherpole stood the monarchists — conservatives,aristocrats and militarists. Each side workedfeverishly to control the ballot box and thus thenation. And each side accused the other of angry,divisive partisanship. Of course then, as now, thepress gleefully played along, creating furtherpolarization.

Then, in 1894, someone discovered that a Frenchman hadpassed information to the German high command. Afteran investigation, Captain Alfred Dreyfus — a Jew and arepublican — was arrested for the crime. CaptainDreyfus was brought before a military court inSeptember of 1894 and, with the testimony of awitness-for-hire and that of a dubious handwritingexpert, he was found guilty. As grand theatre, Dreyfuswas shamed before France, publicly stripped of hisepaulets and medals and then sent away to Devil’sIsland.

The monarchists and militarists wanted to scapegoatCaptain Dreyfus, not only because he was a Jew — though the military and the French press werenotoriously anti-Semitic — but more importantlybecause they wanted to destroy republican sympathy inthe military and in the nation. The conviction ofDreyfus worked perfectly. Public sympathy passed tothe military as their nation’s savior. That is, until1898.

In 1898, another man, Major Walsin Esterhazy wasdiscovered to be the real culprit of Dreyfus’ssupposed crime. But Major Esterhazy was a monarchist.And when he was court-martialed — despite absoluteevidence of his guilt — he was conveniently andquietly found innocent. And then, the major witnessagainst Major Esterhazy was arrested and imprisoned.The matter may well have ended there. But one writerrefused to ignore the truth.

On January 11, 1898, two days after Esterhazy wasfound innocent, newspaper writer Emile Zola wrote“J’accuse,” a public letter of condemnation to FrenchPresident Felix Fore. In the letter, Zola made boldaccusations and named names. The military quicklyresponded, and Zola found himself being tried forlibel. He fled to England. But by then, the militaryhad lost public support. Zola had shone a light ontruth. And a nation responded.

On June 3, 1899, in an effort to confront the growingpublic outcry, the military retried Dreyfus — butbrazenly found him guilty again, with extenuatingcircumstances. But knowing the electoral game waslost, the military prepared for a coup d’etat. And thedemocratic forces prepared for action.

Twenty days later, the republicans of France — fromcentrists to socialists — rallied to form acentre-left government. And in September of 1899, thenew president, René Waldeck-Rousseau, daringlychallenged the military by pardoning Dreyfus. TheFrench Polarized Express had reached the fork in thetracks. But the military backed down. And the republicwas saved.

So, a hundred years later, what lessons are there forAmerica on the Polarized Express?

The Dreyfus Affair was about a polarized people whopassionately believed in their competing visions for anation. It was also about the inherent dangers ofriding the Polarized Express and the frighteninglyreal risk of losing a republic to a dictatorship. But,so too, the Dreyfus Affair was about the power of oneman’s story to challenge that threat and about thepower of words to cast a light on truth.

America is riding the Polarized Express. And itsdemocracy may soon be bent to the breaking point. Butby repeatedly telling the stories of injustice, and byrepeatedly casting light on the truth, America may yetrediscover their republic.