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  • Paul

Four ways we're contributing to and exaggerating our divisions

The narrative today is that our country is divided. While there's lots of evidence for that narrative, I think it's a vast exaggeration of where we stand. Political tribalism aside, we all want the same things for our country and our future, and we agree broadly on the type of government and policy we should have. We may differ on specifics and methods, but few Americans want us to become like Cuba or France.

Today I'm arguing that public discourse is both reflecting and reinforcing that divide. Reporters, politicians, and regular people rely too much on convenient terms or scapegoats and we don’t think critically about how these forms of shorthand exaggerate and perpetuate the divide. n a likely foolish but still hopeful spirit, I’ll suggest that we rein in four phrases that over-simplify or misrepresent our political and policy discussion, in hopes we’ll be more thoughtful about how we and others use them. I’m neither for nor capable of implementing censorship. Instead I’m suggesting that each of us–elected leaders, media of all ideologies, and just regular people–use these phrases more narrowly and thoughtfully, if at all.

The Biden administration

Nearly every news report out of Washington discusses something “the Biden Administration” has done, wants to do, or has failed to do. What would happen if instead of the Biden, Trump or Spears (Brittney’s free and old enough, let’s elect her!) administration, we talk about the American government, the federal government, or the national government? Then we might focus more on what Americans are doing for (or to) ourselves than the agents we’ve entrusted to work for us. After all, we put the President there, so it’s our administration. (No, I’m not weighing in on the legitimacy of the 2020 election, at least until I fortify my safe room, but once I do, it’ll be a blast.)

We also completely over-estimate the role and impact of the president. The national government is a $6 billion business, with two-thirds of the spending on autopilot and nearly half the remainder for the military. Few presidents try to mess with Social Security, Medicare, or the military, and even fewer succeed. That leaves little room for big policy change. Presidents get few chances to change any policy in any meaningful or permanent way; Obama got health insurance, Bush and Trump got tax cuts, and Biden is already a stunning success in that he got both the American Rescue Plan and infrastructure spending (an important and long overdue victory). Beyond that, presidents can nudge the discussion with speeches and symbolic acts and they can tweak policy through executive actions, but these rarely have any lasting impact on the nation. Those statements, symbols and executive actions are correctly identified as actions of the administration, as they can and will be reversed in a later administration.

I’m not suggesting we should ignore the president’s actions or statements. We should pay attention to the extent we are able and interested, we should be sure our leaders know our views, and we should hold Biden and every elected official accountable at the next election.

We’re inundated with surveys that Americans of all political beliefs fear for the future of democracy. But what happens in Washington and state capitols is democracy; we put those governments in place and we consent to be governed. If we acknowledge that democracy is us and if we take responsibility for it in the present, can we brighten the future?

I blame social media

Most Americans agree that social media has negative effects on our country, largely due to their manipulation of the news we see and their role in spreading misinformation. I admit that the bots have us outnumbered and that their masters love them more than we hate them, but are they really the problem? We’re both their food source and the consumers of what they tailor, amplify, and regurgitate back to us.

We can outsmart the bots! If we read critically, if we ignore or just nod and move on from most posts, if we stop sharing things that we can’t (or don’t want to) verify, if we stop telling other people they’re wrong, we can tamp down on the role of social media in dividing and angering us. We could get even more of the benefits that got us to buy into these platforms in the first place. Re-friending the people who drove you nuts through the 2020 election would be a good place to start!

Red state, blue state

Of the many things that give me strokes when I expose myself to political reporting, one is the division of America into red and blue states, with an implication there are permanent and inevitable differences between, say Californians and Wyomians. Too often we buy into these seemingly fixed geographic destinies. Those who live in “blue states” assume everyone in a “red state” is a stupid, racist, gun-toting redneck. Everyone living in a “red state” thinks “blue state” residents are naive burned-out hippies who look down on real Americans and want to take their guns–and their freedom–away. While there are people who could fairly be described this way, you can find plenty of both of them in every state.

No state (except maybe Wyoming?) is homogenous. Every state has urban and rural places, residents of every race, age, and education level, and people of every ideology. Each has strong partisans of the two major political parties, a growing number of independents, and at least a quarter of the population that doesn’t know or care much about politics. There’s as much diversity of opinion within states as across states. That’s because every state is geographically and culturally diverse. My home of Oklahoma City is more like Fresno, California than it is like Hugo, Oklahoma. My original hometown in suburban Portland, Oregon, is more like Edmond, Oklahoma than it is like Grants Pass, Oregon. In fact, if there’s another civil war, it won’t be between states; it’ll be Hugo vs. Oklahoma City and Grant Pass vs. Portland.

States do still matter in politics. They have an outsized role in national elections thanks to the outdated structures of the senate and the electoral college. They elect legislatures that aren’t ideologically representative of the voters, due to the two-party duopoly and gerrymandered districts. Those unrepresentative legislatures try to stay in power by passing laws that please the fringe groups that support them. These laws may pass and they do widen differences in the state, but few change the politics or culture of the state. They’re symbolic actions whose only purpose is to populate election season mailers.

When we reduce all this to colors on a map, we’re subtly forecasting a future that’s just like the present, when that’s never the case. People who vote (a minority of adults in most states and elections) vote their circumstances and emotions on a specific day with specific candidate choices. It’s silly and demeaning to assume that these circumstances, emotions, and choices are the same every two years in November, even on an individual level. At a group level, states change demographically, economically, and politically every day. One day, probably in the next decade or two, California will vote for a Republican in a presidential election and have a Republican governor, and Wyoming will do the reverse. They’ll do that because it makes sense to a majority of voters on that day, not because of a color on a CNN map.

Similarly, the impacts of hot-button legislation will be limited by governors’ vetoes, by lack of interest in implementing the the laws, by court actions, and by the next legislature. The United States has been and remains a conservative-centrist nation. Agreements between political parties and states are more fundamental and lasting than disagreements.

It's COVID's fault

The fear of COVID was understandable and inevitable, at least at the beginning. The backlash to the sudden shutdown of regular life was equally understandable and inevitable. However, the hard battle lines drawn between the fearful (and more communal-oriented) and the fearless (and more individual-oriented) were neither understandable nor inevitable. They were driven by politicians and news media that thrive on division, and assisted by government leaders trying to turn a virus into a campaign ally, and enabled by poor communication from every public agency in the country.

While I might delve more deeply into the origin and development of COVID Derangement Syndrome (once the American Psychological Association calls me), for now I’ll just address the main symptom, the firm belief that the people on the opposite “side” of yours are not as smart as you are and don’t understand what’s in their best interest. That’s not because of COVID, it’s because of the tribal nature of human beings. But COVID is a good example of where most of us let tribalism make us stupid.

There’s something around the corner that’s going to scare us and has the potential to divide us. What I hope we’ll do differently next time is recognize that:

  • most people are somewhere in the middle; the line is fictional,

  • people we disagree with have the same right to an opinion as we do and are just as smart as we are, and

  • everyone deserves the same benefit of the doubt that we hope we’ll get ourselves.

Words matter. We should pay attention to them.

There’s nothing wrong with any of these terms or arguments; they all have some merit and grounding in reality. But they all are also overworked oversimplifications that get applied too often and too broadly. Maybe if we’re more careful in using them and think more critically about how they are used, we can take a tiny step toward bridging divides that are themselves overworked and oversimplified. There’s nothing to lose by trying it out, right?

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