Alexis de Tocqueville famously said, “I do not know if the people of the United States would vote for superior men if they ran for office, but there can be no doubt that such men do not run.” (ca. 1835)
The American experiment has always been maintained by flawed leaders. I hear people say: “Things could never have been as bad as they are now!” But remember, for example, Hamilton is not just a musical. The man himself actually died in a dual after muting Aaron Burr on Twitter. Oh, and the Civil War. Nevertheless, the country today does seem irreparably at odds. Can things improve? Not without us all taking some responsibility. No snowflake in an avalanche feels responsible…
So consider these three reasons we are so divided:
All or Nothing
Centuries ago, a Persian prophet named Mani described the world as a battleground between forces of good and evil. He described human beings on the frontlines urgently needing to choose sides. His influence on Western thought persists to this day. Today’s “right side of history” trope stems from that school of thought, Manichaenism. To a Manichaen, compromise is a sin. You’re either a ying or a yang, hot or cold, sheep or goat. “Are you one of us or one of them? An ally or an enemy?” Once upon a time only church people were accused of being self-righteous. Today our media is all a flutter with virtue signaling. People assert their righteousness on the basis of any number of social issues. We have trouble conceiving how someone could oppose our point of view without there being something deeply disturbing about them.
Demonizing “them” is an easy way to deflect an opposing point of view without actually having to wrestle with it. Jon Haidt’s book, The Righteous Mind challenges this tactic. It is a primer of assumptions behind the spectrum of views. It sheds light upon the current polarity. Given the enormous pressure in academia and the media to follow a particular narrative, I was surprised to read the following in his book:
“Liberals stand up for victims of oppression…but their zeal to help often leads them to push for changes that weaken groups, traditions, institutions…. For example, the urge to help the inner-city poor led to welfare programs in the 1960s that…weakened African American families.”
The lack of freedom to offer this kind of self-critique more broadly is a profound blind spot amidst social justice orthodoxy. Hunger for political power conflicts with principles that actually elevate people. As a result, anyone who dares question any tactic is immediately marginalized as one of “them.”