Polarization and Healing America

Remember America before COVID-19?

A couple months ago, before the COVID-19 was a thing here in the United States, a friend asked me what I thought might help us in dealing effectively with the hyper-partisanship we see in American politics. I almost fell prey to the knee-jerk reaction most of us have (not excluding myself) to think of politics in terms of the current dialog from our own perspective. I don’t remember exactly what I said, but it was something anodyne, like “listen to understand, rather than to argue,” and that we “should try to put ourselves in our fellow citizens’ place.”

The blinding flash of the obvious implicit  in the foregoing observation is that while my perspective matters, isn’t the only one that matters. Most of us understand that intuitively, while ignoring even the most glaring implications.

So my prescriptions fore healing America’s hyper-partisan politics are fine as far as they goes, but it ignore the underpinning causative factors contributing to that hyper-partisan polarization.

In a hypothetically pluralistic democracy of 330 million (about), extracting a meaningful consensus on any specific issue is borderline impossible. Irrespective of where we fall on the political spectrum, do we not have to start with the notion that we’re at our best when we recognize that it’s okay to agree to disagree? Disagreements are inevitable in a nation of this size. To me, that’s the first step. But it’s only a first step. We need to recognize that there are legitimate reasons for those differences of opinion.

At the Intersection of Geography and Demographics

If you’re a farmer, you’re wondering how you’re going to compete with corporate farms, falling prices & climate change some factions in our government insist is a hoax. You know better, of course. If you’re a farmer, you live by the weather and this isn’t normal. But you’re busy trying to make ends meet & you don’t have time to sort through all the science. The latest technology doesn’t exactly pass you by, but it’s not in your face, further compressing your daily timeline the way it does someone who lives in New York , Los Angeles of Seattle.

If you’re a wage earner almost anywhere, you’re painfully aware of how many jobs have moved overseas. And if you’re absolutely honest with yourself, you know most of them aren’t coming back. All this even before COVID-19 shuttered the economy and torpedoed almost 40 million jobs, over the last three months.

But who’s doing anything about it? Corporate America isn’t. They’re automating. Portions of the government are doing what they can, but if you’ve been paying attention (you have, haven’t you?) then you that one party is all-in for corporate America while the other is more or less on our side but are the majority in only one branch of government.

We have the government we’ve enabled. We have allowed the rot of dysfunctional government to set in. We allowed money to stand in for civic engagement while we all got on with our lives, leaving politics to the politicians and high finance to the robber barons who’ve forgotten more about turning a buck than most of us will ever know. 

America the Muddled...

The beginning of a solution lies not simply in recognizing we’ve been collectively had, but also in the inescapable conclusion that we are both the problem and the answer. The answer will not be some savior in the form of another politician, or self-proclaimed “non-politician.” Nor is a savior to be found in the form of a wide-eyed, well-meaning liberal barking about the emerging social imperatives of a corporate bashing counter-revolution.

We are the answer. A solution grounded in the almost laughably simple notion that there is more that unites us than separates us. It means shutting down the barrage of noise and self-serving motivated cognition from both extremes of the political spectrum and focusing on what we  can honestly claim we know.

The Way Home...

Having grown up in the Heartland, lived on both coasts and the south, I’ve come to think of most of America writ large as home, not a single region. As a Marine officer, with an advanced degree in Organizational Development and a second career in corporate America, I’ve seen the world from the hyper-conservative perspective common in the Corps. I’ve also seen it from the more liberal perspective of a surfer, snow skier and environmentalist.

What these experiences here and overseas have taught me, is that we are all capable of understanding and empathizing with each other. IF we want to.  But the necessary and indispensable accomplice empathy is a willing mind, untrammeled by the loud mouths with agendas, explicit or hidden.

In the age of for-profit media and 24/7/365 news, there has never been more access to information and disinformation. Unfortunately, we can no longer tune in to the 6:00 PM news and get the story from one source. If you’re getting all your information from Fox News or from the Sinclair Broadcasting Networks, I guarantee you that you don’t know what you think you know. If you’re getting your news exclusively from MSNBC, you’re getting better information but you’re still getting a lot of commentary, however well informed along with the news.

Like it or not, we have to take everything from every source as subject to multiple source verification, not  to mention fact-checking. If you don’t have them bookmarked yet, bookmark OpenSecrets.Org, FactCheck.org & and Annenberg  Public Policy Center and make use of them. You’ll be a infinitely harder to deceive if you know where to go for a little more balance.

Last but not least, recognize that we’re all humans with hopes and dreams, loves and passions, most of which we share in common. It doesn’t matter what color you are, who/what/if you worship or who you love, we all have pretty much the same itches. And they’re a lot of things we can do to help each other, if we want to, but we all need to step outside ourselves just a little and recognize that if we let it all go bad, we all bleed red.

D.B. Sayers is the author of  four books, including West of Tomorrow, Best-Case Scenario, Through the Windshield and his latest, Tier Zero, Vol. I of The Knolan Cycle, the first in his series chronicling first contact between the Knolan Concordant and Earth.

A Modest Lesson From My Road…

It’s almost an article of faith, today, that we are a nation divided by conflicting identities and most of the evidence supports that conclusion. It’s hard to find commentary from either side of the political spectrum that does not extoll the virtues of “Our Side” & “Our” particular take on truth at the expense of the opposition.

Factions identified as “The Right” peddle alternative realities and conspiracy theories, rail against the “Deep State” or shadowy “Fifth Column” movements bent on bringing down capitalism self-reliance and rugged individualism. Factions typically identified as “The Left” seek to demonize everyone who doesn’t share their vision of a brave new inclusive world in which everyone loves everyone else, even if they don’t, really. Everybody should love everybody, after all…well, shouldn’t they?

Seriously...think it over.

Tribes and Tribulations

The Brotherhood of Marines is a lesson to us all. The Citadel Hue City, during the Tet Offensive.

People who know me well know my first adult identity was as a Marine. It wasn’t a popular identity in the early years of my service. The military’s reputation was at its low ebb, in America, during Vietnam and for years thereafter. There’s room for debate with respect to how much of that contempt was earned, but most of us felt we were under siege in our own country and no where was this more evident than in California, where I was stationed after my first tour.

As a result, we turned inward. Many of us became Marines not simply first, but exclusively. Our haircut, our posture and an indefinable something others sensed set us apart, even out of uniform. Because we could not hide who we were, we wore our identity with tribal defiance, many of us choosing to opt out of “main stream society,” with whose views and values our own conflicted.

But lazer focus on identity in a society as diverse as ours is simply not sustainable. Like it or not, we own our society…all of it, not just the part we agree with. As the memories of Vietnam and the divisions it evoked receded, so did the animosities. Gradually, all of America came to realize a nation that continued to despise it’s military would eventually have a despicable military that lived down to its reputation, earned or not.

Unconsciously, we all came to realize this, though it took time. At first, Dirk the Marine officer, and “Otter” the surfer/shaper were different identities, inhabiting different orbits in the same geographical space. But over time, those identities merged into one, with neither identity  conflicting with the  other contextual realities that had come to define me. A surfing Marine was no longer out of place in the waves, or on base with surf racks on his/her car.

The zen zone - a world unto itself...

Road Songs...

Over time, my merging identities as Marine and surfer symbolized broader kinship. As permanent changes of duty station and my own incurable restlessness pulled me repeatedly across this great land, the inevitable stops along the way pulled me into conversations with other drivers. On one cross-country drive, I pulled a horse and trailer, stopping to stable my horse overnight and found kinship with other horse people whose take on things didn’t always dovetail with mine.

This divergence of opinion repeated itself with relatives in Texas, one of whom referred to my home as “la-la land.” But mixed in with the sediment of opinion, most of the people I came to know well revealed a generosity of spirit, even a nobility I could not help but admire. It’s a sensing we all would do well to recapture.

This did not change after I retired and traveled not as a Marine, but as a corporate trainer. Repeatedly, I was reminded of what I had learned earlier in my career as a Marine officer. Nobility, honor and generosity are not functions of class, race, origin or ethnicity. They are rooted in attitude. Ironically, I often noticed this nobility and generous-hearted love of country was most evident in immigrants who had come here by choice, rather than accident of birth.

Specialization and Synergy

Toasts and fines can get a little wild...

Many years ago, I attended one of many Marine Corps mess nights which (like some mess nights) got a little wild. In the toasts immediately following dinner, a “toasting war” broke out over which Military Occupational Specialty (MOS) was or should be most valued.

First an infantry officer stood to make his case for the superiority of the infantry…to agreement by other infantrymen and numerous catcalls from everyone else. Then an artillery officer stood and said his piece, followed by a tanker, a fighter pilot an engineer, a communications officer, etc. Finally a quiet, bespectacled officer stood, and was recognized by the president of the Mess. He paused, waiting for silence, then spoke these words:

There is always an empty table for fallen comrades...

“To all the numbers! Together we’re invincible.”

(For those of you who might not know, all MOS’s have numeric designations). Tables were pounded and glasses drained to roars of approval. As every officer knows, he (or she) won’t last very long without the other. The fusion and synergy of joint warfare as practiced by the U.S. military today is legendary for a reason. We rely on each other and know that our brothers and sisters in arms would sooner die than let us down.

E Pluribus Unum...

My wanderings across this country have led me to understand what has made America the great nation it has become isn’t what’s different about us,either internally or externally. It’s how each of our self-images inform our individual actions.

In this age of swirling change and shifting paradigms, we would do well to remember this. I am convinced much of the disunion we see today is a spin-off of change greater even than the paroxysms of the Industrial Revolution. We should be unsurprised by the divisions those changes are tearing in our social fabric. Change by definition destroys nearly as much as it creates. And hidden in this maelstrom of change is unharnessed energy is both hope and rage. It is for us to choose what to do with it.

Just a thought...

I now have way more runway behind me than is left in front of me. I’ve lived a rich life in terms of experiences. I’ve learned to question almost everything I think, because my first thoughts are often wrong…or at least out of balance. But this I know.

When we choose to divide ourselves…or allow others inside or out to do, we place all we value at peril. We should be suspicious of identity politics that seems calculated to divide us, rather than pull us together. We’re a contentious, rambunctious collection of differing opinions. That’s who we are but in that diversity there is great synergy, beauty, wisdom and resilience. And in the end, that’s exactly what we need.