The idea we live in a polarized nation is not new. For decades, Americans have pulled in opposite directions based on differences over ideology, backgrounds, faith, you name it.
But lately, it’s gotten so much worse.
The 2016 presidential race has veered so far into personal attacks and the cult of celebrity that it no longer resembles a political struggle. The governmental divide is so deep that even those who feel a sense of responsible leadership can’t bridge it, the House speaker the latest to throw in the towel. Even a pope can’t visit our nation to spread his message of love, charity and forgiveness without being held in contempt by some who feel his ideology is too extreme.
When did Americans become so intolerant, even downright nasty with each other?
There are many fingers to point in blame. One aims toward talk radio and cable TV screamers who have created echo chambers with no diversity of thought or honest exchange on issues. Where political forum programs once had dual hosts from each side of the spectrum debating amiably, now there is only one espousing a single set of views. The networks once offered a “crossfire” of discussion from all sides. Now we hear only an amen chorus from the right or left, depending which channel you’re tuned to.
Newspapers have traditionally tried to offer balance and a variety of views on op-ed pages. Yet now we come under fire for publishing commentary some may disagree with, as if we could or should print ideas only from one school of thought. That’s difficult to do when there are thousands of readers who don’t share the same views. A reasonable forum should include multiple perspectives we all can learn from. How does one establish a set of views without knowing what the alternative is in comparison? Isn’t it instructive to know what the other side thinks to form an intellectual counterpoint to it?
Herein lies much of the problem: It’s too often less about thoughts and more about feelings, beliefs and emotion. Those are hard to approach and often impossible to change.
Now even many who share the same umbrella political philosophies are at odds. In the scrum for the 2016 GOP presidential nomination, front-runner Donald Trump has built his brand by seeking to tear down his opponents, cracking wise over their physical appearances like a common playground bully. Trump and Fox News now are on the outs and no one in the Republican establishment wants him around. Yet he retains a solid following of supporters who buy into his boast of “America stinks and I’m the only one who can fix it.”
It’s happening on the Democratic side, too. Hillary Clinton’s status as frontrunner has many in her party fretting over her ethical baggage. That’s why underfunded long shot Bernie Sanders and undeclared candidate Joe Biden are on her heels in the polls.
It’s healthy to disagree, even among members of the same political party or ideological group. That’s how to form ideas that can lead to solving problems. The issue is HOW we disagree. It’s not with thought-out responses, in most cases, but knee-jerk reaction that becomes more personal and ugly and less constructive over time.
Where are the statesmen and stateswomen of years past? Where are the leaders willing to put national and world interests ahead of political expediency with long-term solutions rather than short-term political gain?
Sadly, most of them lie in Arlington National Cemetery or other burial grounds under monuments that bear testimony to the ideas they left behind. It’s tempting to say we need a Roosevelt, a Kennedy or a Reagan to bind us together, but one wonders if even such a figure could be heard above the current din.
This is reflected in reaction to Pope Francis’ visit and the notion he is a “liberal” leader of the Catholic church. In his visit, he urged all to accept and forgive sinners, help the poor and preserve the planet regardless of the economic consequences. Moral stances are his calling; he’s not a politician or an economist. He is focused on souls and salvation, not bottom line budget matters. Yet somehow he is held to the same standard one might apply to a Senate candidate, which is both sad and bizarre.
It’s reflected in the actions of a group called Black Lives Matter that believes the rash of incidents between police and unarmed African-Americans in recent years is an orchestrated effort to oppress minorities rather than a series of unfortunate incidents that stand on their own. Anyone who tries to intervene by claiming “all lives matter” is shouted down as racist.
Black Lives activists rudely crashed a rally for Sanders, a candidate who largely sympathizes with their cause, and have inflamed feelings against them that do more harm than good. Even some civil rights warriors weaned on the teachings of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. feel the movement is going too far in its tactics.
Something in us has broken. We have turned from one nation into a nation of ones. Few seek to find common ground across racial, religious or political gulfs and come together. We are us and they are them; we are right and they are wrong. That’s America in a nutshell today.
How do we change this? It starts with a willingness to listen and accept different viewpoints without judging those who offer them as outsiders or “un-American.” To acknowledge our differences and seek common ground rather than engage in verbal combat.
Or maybe just by heeding the message the pope brought to our shores: Love one another and get along. That would be a good starting point.