“Did you hear of the city on the hill
Said one old man to the other
It once shined bright, and it would be shining still
But they all started turning on each other
You see, the poets thought the dancers were shallow
And the soldiers thought the poets were weak
And the elders saw the young ones as foolish
And the rich man never heard the poor man speak”
As I mentioned last time, it is easy to believe America is divided into two irreconcilable sides. This is certainly what the media depicts, and casual observation seems to confirm it. However, the media, as is its nature, amplifies the most extreme voices or events (which is why it seems like crime is increasing when statistics show it is actually decreasing). We hear more about people on the extreme of both political sides instead of the everyday Americans who do not fit neatly into either box. We are not shown most Americans who may pledge allegiance to a political party but do not identify with every extreme policy that party advocates. We are not shown the ways we could unite.
Democratic politicians are increasingly advocating democratic socialism, but do we really believe most average American Democrats agree with this turn against our economic system? Capitalism has become a dirty word that is widely misunderstood, and so looking at support that use the word “capitalism” will give skewed results. For example, an alarming number of millennials say they favor socialism over capitalism. Yet, when polled using descriptions of the free market, they show overwhelming support. And it makes sense; our lives our filled with the benefits of the free market from smart phones to Uber. If millennials truly realized what capitalism and the free market meant and what they would have to give up to get rid of it, I am confident they would have a change of heart. The problem is in the way we use certain terms and talk about different policies.
On the surface, it appears the political left and right have vastly different worldviews. In reality, the majority on both sides share moral values but come to different conclusions because they operate under different paradigms. In his brilliant article, Robin Koerner argues that the “fallacy of the assumed paradigm” is the reason for so many political disagreements. The article is worth reading in full, but the basic idea is that, most of the time, people on the left and right do not disagree in their moral premises but their empirical premises. They disagree on the facts relevant to the issue. Empirical premises are often unstated and may not even be consciously recognized. We can become so entrapped in our way of thinking that we jump to the conclusion that anyone who disagrees with the policies we support disagrees with our morals. This makes political discussions much more heated than they need to be.
This fallacy explains why liberals often assume racism on the part of conservatives, who believe liberals are stirring up race for political motives. Take affirmative action, for example. Liberals operate under a paradigm where blacks are at a disadvantage in the present because of how they were treated in the past and therefore need the playing field leveled. Anyone who opposes the leveling of the field through affirmative action policies must then be a racist. In the conservative view, race no longer matters, so it is blacks who are the racists if they insist on special treatment. Neither side is fundamentally racist. The real issue here is whether the playing field needs to be leveled, and our discussions would be much more fruitful and less hateful if we recognized it.
Of course, there are socialists on the left and racists on the right, and yet, based on the way the media amplifies extreme voices, reasonable people on either side may believe their opponents always represent the extreme. If someone carries this assumption, they are less likely to listen to arguments on the other side. Suspicions are confirmed when the other person supports the more extreme members of their party, which they feel they must because they see a binary choice. They reluctantly go along with their party even when they disagree because they fear the extremism on the other side more. They don’t reach out to the other side because they see them support the extreme parts of their own party. It’s a vicious cycle that needs to end.
Those who believe our differences are irreconcilable and America needs to split overlook most reasonable people who could come together in agreement on basic principles. It has become frightening how conservatives are starting to use the tactics of the left to silence their opponents, such as Twitter mob attacks. It is said this is the only way to win. Playing by the rules and being nice to everyone will not work, they say. Perhaps this would be correct if we were simply talking about extreme leftists. There truly is an agenda to fundamentally transform America, and it needs to stop. However, most average Democrats would not go along with this plan if they truly understood it. To focus on defeating the extremists to win pushes these average Democrats further out of our grasp. To take this approach would mean sacrificing them for the sake of a better chance at victory. Is it worth it? While a practical argument may make sense, is it morally right to not even give half of America a chance to choose another path?
After living for Boston even for a short time, for me, the answer is “no.” I am not willing to give up on these people, for I see too much hope in them. This is an amazing city that could not have been built if it were not for capitalism. Boston was built on free trade and still largely depends on it. I work in Cambridge at a fancy medical facility leading the charge in cancer treatment where they have three different types of sophisticated coffee machines and top of the line technology. And this is where the future meets the past. Downtown, office buildings stand side by side to historic sites that have stood since the city was first settled. This is where the American Revolution started, and everyone is proud of it. While some places may be concerned about removing statues of any historical figure who had anything to do with slavery such as Thomas Jefferson, Bostonians walk by statues of Samuel Adams or play with their kids at Christopher Columbus Park. Conservatives fear the left is erasing American history, but it is still alive and well in the liberal city of Boston.
America has always had deep political divisions. Along with slavery, issues of tariffs and taxes plagued the nation since its founding. It is a miracle the country was founded in the first place. Even at the beginning, there were huge disagreements about slavery. Many of the founding fathers wishes to abolish the horrendous practice, but they knew if they did so, the southern states would never join the union. Instead, they laid the foundation so slavery would be abolished later. They had faith in the American people that they would come to realize that all men being free included black men and women. They could have easily proclaimed the divisions between North and South too great and advocated two nations instead of one. Yet, they chose compromise for the sake of unity. And even through the Civil War, we’ve managed to stay together. I believe there is a point where two groups must go their separate ways (which is what happened when America broke away from Great Britain), but the time is not now. We at least owe it to ourselves and our shared history to try to find common ground.
Make no mistake: the dangers of socialism on the left and nationalism on the right should be taken seriously. If fact, if half the country believed in liberty and half in one of these forms of statism, then it would make sense for us to split because those ideologies do not mix. Maybe it will come to that eventually, but I see no evidence of it now. Progressives have been so successful infiltrating the educational system and influencing minds precisely because they have not outright stated their goals. They have used the language of freedom and rights to win people over. There maybe be some transparency now, but it seems like it is backfiring. Liberals have been persuaded by progressives because they believe progressivism protects rights. Instead of casting them off, conservatives and libertarians would be better served to show them why progressivism and socialism destroy the very rights they seek to protect. We need to have a conversation about what “rights” and “liberty” mean. We need to understand each other’s paradigms so we can come together. If we do that, we may find we are not so far apart after all.
There is an identifiable split between these average Americans, both liberal and conservative, and the extremes on both sides. Perhaps this is what some see as the real division that requires us to go our separate ways. If we all recognized the true sides, maybe this would be a viable option, but right now we are blind to the truth. There are still those on both sides who want to win and defeat the other side at any cost. While I understand winning is the point of politics, is it necessary to view this as a war and the opponent as an enemy? We will never unite if we keep treating the other side as an intolerable enemy that must be obliterated, and we need to come together because we need each other.
In the Federalist Papers, James Madison warns the new country about factions. He feared one faction would take over and impose its interests on everyone. The solution was to make it possible for many factions to compete, making it difficult for any one to gain too much ground. Surely, he would be dismayed at our two-party system. However, two parties are better than one party. The Constitution is full of safeguards against allowing one side to get too much done. Even if a party could purify itself ideologically and represent the truth, that party should not remain dominant without opposition, even if that opposition is obviously wrong. Anyone can become corrupted, and power has the tendency to bring out the worst in everyone. Even with the best intentions, without competition to keep people on their toes, they become relaxed and will gradually let their values slip by. The right needs the left to keep them honest and engaged in an active pursuit of truth.
In all honestly, neither the stereotypical left or right has the full truth, which is something libertarians know well. I attended a very liberal graduate school for criminal justice where politics was often brought up. I constantly felt like I was asked to choose between the left’s welfare state and the right’s police state. This is only one of the many caricatures you could make of both sides. While no one follows each side perfectly, liberals generally desire a generous welfare state, and conservatives generally favor tough on crime approaches that leak into the area of a police state. Simply taking the topic of crime, I believe both sides have an important voice in the discussion. America needs both justice and mercy. The right’s justice and the left’s mercy balance each other out and give the potential for a whole greater than its parts. While all too often politicians compromise to bring the worst of two sides (like socialism and the police state), it is possible to choose the best of both. The politicians will not go for it willingly. Average citizens need to come together to develop solutions from the bottom up. It starts with talking to each other and listening to each other with an open mind.
This may seem like hopeless idealism, but its realization is closer than we think. Conservative TV and radio show host Glenn Beck has preached this type of unity and coming together for the past couple of years. He has tried to reach out to the left and have real conversations with them. Most of the big-name Democrats simply scoff at him, but there has been a surprising number of people who have come on his show and shown his conservative audience that there are normal, decent Democrats left in America. Recently, he interviewed a Democratic Congressman who speaks out against the democratic socialism infiltrating his party. He is an old school Democrat in the tradition of JFK. And he promises he is not alone. He claims to speak for most average Democrats who are too afraid to confront their own party. The Tea Party helped establish a more conservative side in the Republican Party, and now the same appears to be happening in the Democrat Party. These two groups can unite and work to overcome the establishment that only benefits from our division.
That is not to say any of this will be easy. It is hard for us to admit we may be wrong, and cognitive dissonance fuels our certainty that, if we are right, our opponent must be stupid or evil. We need to recognize that no single person has the whole truth and we can all learn from each other. I have now lived in Minnesota, Texas, Kentucky, and Massachusetts: four different states from four different regions the country with four distinct cultures and traditions. I love exploring states where everything is different from what I am used to. I find the uniqueness of each state fascinating. I love trying the food, learning the history, and listening to the accents. As I’ve traveled, I’ve learned this is not normal. When I tell people where I’m from or where I’m going, there is an almost instinctive need for the person to take sides on one of the two places mentioned. Most obviously, Northerners and Southerners criticize each other. Recently, both Midwesterners and Southerner have pointed out the flaws of the Northeast. But the aggressiveness they criticize is touted as directness in Boston, and the people here in turn believe Midwesterners passive aggressive and Southerners inauthentic. It’s all about perspective.
If America split in two, we would lose the diversity the states offer us. Each state has a unique perspective, and, while some may have righter than others, they can all offer something of value. And even if we thought it worth the cost, going our separate ways at this point would not solve our problems. First, there is not an easy divide like there was during the Civil War. The split is not simply North and South anymore; increasingly, urban and rural areas are pitted against each other. Conservative Texas is slowly turning blue because of the growing urbanization, and those in the rural areas of states like Illinois and New York feel like Chicago and NYC are taking over their states. Even if the states themselves were split to reflect these differences, they would natural develop in the future. We need to find out why these differences exist and how to deal with them. A divorce would only mask these problems.
There is still more that unites us than divides us, and it would be a mistake to let our differences become an irreparable rift. We need to give each other the benefit of the doubt and hear each other out. If, one day, without any hatred or malice, we conclude we really do see the world too differently to remain one country, then it may very well be the right decision to split into two. But we are far from that point. We will not get there until we give each other an honest hearing. Hatred and outrage do not produce clear thinking. Our fellow Americans are not our enemies. If we’re busy fighting each other, we cannot fight the elites who truly wish to change everything we know and love.
We seem to realize our shared humanity when tragedy strikes. We were united after the terrorist attacks of 9/11. Bostonians even gave support to New Yorkers at Red Sox-Yankee games, and New Yorkers gave them the same treatment after the Boston Marathon bombing. More recently, people from all political backgrounds came together to help the victims of Hurricane Harvey despite the media’s best attempts to keep us dived. We do not need a national tragedy to start realizing there is more that unites than divides us. While there is no simple answer to how to start the process of coming together, let me suggest one method that could work wonders in your personal life. Next time you find yourself in a conversation with someone on the other side of the aisle, take the time to point out a time when either you were wrong about an issue or a policy proposed by your own side that you do not agree with. This will lower the defenses of the other person and make it more likely that they will be willing to admit when they have been wrong as well. The results of your conversation may surprise you. The day we close our minds to new ideas and perspectives is the day we stop growing.
We have a long task ahead of us, but I have hope that we can get it done. Americans have always stood with goodness over evil once it was clearly laid out. I have faith that light will soon shine on the truth. Our common story is too great for it end here. In the last of this mini-series, I will share one story that could have the potential to unite.
“It is the rhythm of the dancers
That gives the poets life
It is the spirit of the poets
That gives the soldiers strength to fight
It is fire of the young ones
It is the wisdom of the old
It is the story of the poor man
That’s needing to be told
But one by one will we run away
With our made-up minds to leave it all behind
As the light begins to fade in the City on the Hill”
– “City on the Hill” by Casting Crowns