NOTE: This is the first installment in a series of posts outlining my observations on the divided nature of this country. All posts can be found here.
In the run up to the 2016 Presidential Elections, the New York Times wrote the following in an opinion piece titled “The Divided States of America”:
Most large cities, college towns, the Northeast and the West Coast are deep-blue Democratic. Ruby-red Republican strongholds take up most of the South, the Great Plains, the Mountain States and the suburban and rural areas in between. Rather than compete directly against each other, both parties increasingly occupy their separate territories, with diminishing overlap and disappearing common accountability. They hear from very different constituents, with very different priorities. The minimal electoral incentives they do face all push toward nurturing, rather than bridging, those increasingly wide divisions.
From a macro perspective, those observations are very valid and true. But they only speak about one of the many factors that divide the people of this country into two rather distinct categories – Liberals and Conservatives.
The history of this country may have taken whatever route it did to get here. But simply taking a long and hard look at ‘the system’ now can go a long way in explaining the growing divide among the people here. What I present below (and in future posts) are some simple observations that have had a profound influence on the divided state of this country. I do this with the ultimate objective and hope of informing people from other countries to keep a look out for these very symptoms in their own country, lest they become victims to the same divisive power plays.
What are the Issues?
It starts with a simple question: How can you divide a set of people if you don’t have anything to divide them over? It has an equally simple answer: You can’t. So any process with the stated or implied objective of dividing a set of people has to necessarily start with the identification of issues that can be used for that purpose. But it cannot be any issue. Trying to divide a large group of people over a debate such as “Should Government funding be increased to Arts or Science education?” is far less likely to have an impact than a debate such as “Should Muslims be allowed to migrate to the USA?”.
The key to coming up with a divisive issue is to use a topic that has a very visceral basis. For instance, issues arising out of religion are usually safe bets when it comes to their ability to generate strong and conflicting feelings (think abortion and gay marriage). Real or perceived threats against strong traditions that also have a controversial side-effect are also equally effective (think gun rights/control). Role of Government in the day-to-day working of the economy is yet another topic that can generate strong feelings (think socialism/free market).
It is not enough to simply identify divisive issues. It is equally important to create two (and only two) very distinct approaches to resolve the issue. And once these approaches are identified and articulated, it is then that the crucial act of labeling one approach as ‘liberal’ and another as ‘conservative’ can be taken up. This labeling is the final step in the ‘creation/identification of divisive issues’ step of the process. And in a country where most of the people identify as one of liberal or conservative, once you label a particular approach to any divisive issue as either liberal or conservative, you have then automatically scaled up the division on that particular issue to the entire population.
It is a scary observation, but one that is far too commonplace in this country today. Perhaps the more relevant aspect of this process of creation of divisive issues is that the ‘conservative’ or ‘liberal’ approaches to these issues do not necessarily have a common overall basis. That is to say there is no defined set of values for either of these groups from which these differing approaches take shape.
The most glaring example of this lies in the perception of socialism and religion. Both are divisive issues that this country has fought over for decades. For liberals, socialism (or at least some form of it) is generally perceived as a necessary means to address issues such as income inequality and capitalistic greed. The conservatives, on the other hand, view socialism as absolute evil and denounce any form of it. Fair enough. But what about religion? The bible and the values and messages derived from it are by far the most important guiding principles for conservatives. The liberals, on the other hand, vehemently oppose any interference between the church and the state. Again, fair enough.
Now I ask this simple question: What kind of a society does Christ/God preach in the Bible? Does he preach a socialistic society where each person looks after the other? Or does it preach a capitalistic society breeding a dog-eat-dog philosophy where one looks out only for oneself? Even the most cursory reading of the Bible will tell you overwhelmingly (and categorically) that it is the former. (Click the links and you can see for yourself)
So if the Bible preaches a socialistic society, then why do the group of people (Conservatives) who so vehemently propagate its message also support the exact opposite in capitalism? It is an open and glaring contradiction. And so, like I said, there is no basis of common values from which the approaches of a particular group of people spring from.
The damaging significance of a divisive issue in a country cannot be understated. The USA is a country where legislatively bringing about a big change (think Civil rights) is a deliberately slow process. In such a ‘system’, a divisive issue inevitably leads to a situation resembling more of a trench-warfare between opposing groups rather than that of an open and fact based debate and resolution. Needless to say, trench warfare over the same issues over a long period of time only works to divide the society that much farther and deeper. This deepening of the division leads to a feedback loop that incentivizes the systems in play to propagate these divisions even more.
But a society cannot be truly divided into two distinct groups just because people have differing opinions on some specific individual issues. To better understand this, consider a (hypothetical) middle aged man in rural California who owns a small farm, employs legal AND undocumented immigrant workers to work his farm, carries guns with pride, goes to church every Sunday, wants universal healthcare, opposes abortion and gay rights, wants the rich to pay their fair share of taxes, advocates for tuition-free college, advocates for climate change initiatives and wants tariffs on goods (including food) imported from outside the USA.
How on earth would you label him – a Conservative or a Liberal?!!?? He supports issues on both sides as it would be perceived today. It is simply impossible to put him in one or the other category as these categories are understood today. Now imagine if America was made up with people like him – people who have strong and differing opinions about the seemingly divisive issues, but do not have a set pattern in their opinions across these issues. In such a situation, when everyone has differing sets of opinions about the same issues, there cannot be a sufficiently large population group that can be thrown into just two distinct categories. Instead, there will simply be dozens (or hundreds) of different groups where the people within that group share common opinions on ALL the issues. But this does not lead to a divided society! This actually leads to a lot of different groups of people with lots of different priorities – but no sustained division. So then why exactly is it so hard (or just plain impossible) to find such people?
The answer lies in grouping. The ultimate key to generating a divide is to identify these divisive issues and the two contradictory (for or against) opinions about these issues. Then allocate a ‘for’ to specific issues and an ‘against’ to the other issues. (Which ones get a ‘for’ and which ones get an ‘against’ are not necessarily rooted in any common basis or philosophy. And the question of exactly WHO decided these ‘fors’ and ‘againsts’ is for another post). This becomes one group – say liberals. Reverse the allocation of ‘for’ and ‘against’ and we have the second group – the conservatives!
So, for example, one group of such opinions would be to stand for gun rights, oppose gay rights and abortion, for free market, for lesser taxes, against Climate control initiatives, for religion, against immigration, against government programs for general population, pro-business, etc. These, as we understand them today, are considered conservative opinions. The opposite group of opinions would then be considered as liberal opinions. So once the opinions of people on these issues are grouped in a certain set way, the label can then be applied to that entire group.
So instead of having dozens (or hundreds) of groups with each group having different sets of opinions on the same issues, we now have two specific groups where the set of opinions on the same issues are pre-determined. In the former, there is no real way to create and sustain a deep division between dozens (or hundreds) of groups of people. But in the latter, it becomes very simple to create the divide when you only have two groups of people with pre-determined and contradictory sets of beliefs/opinions about the same set of issues.
(Yes there are obviously many many people who do not identify themselves as a strictly conservative or liberal in the way these terms are understood today. But there is no one representing these people in Congress or anywhere for that matter. In other words, they are not large enough in number to actually have a voice that can make a difference. This, unfortunately, makes their presence quite redundant. Similarly, it is also true that the current administration’s trade policies aren’t exactly favoring a ‘free market’ – which has led to some conservatives getting rather confused on how to respond to this).
And that is what has happened to this country. There are exactly two groups of people – liberals and conservatives – each seemingly represented by one specific political party. And with each group having a pre-determined (and opposite) set of beliefs and opinions about the same issues, the ease of creation and sustenance of division becomes that much easier.
But then this leads to further questions: WHO exactly creates these divisions? WHO sustains them? And HOW?
Future posts to discuss these and other aspects of a divided society in detail.