The recent events in Charlottesville, and President Trump’s seesawing responses to them, have once again thrown the issue of a divided country into high relief. As the usual tale goes, there is a Liberal America that yearns for an expanding sphere of acceptance, empowerment, and opportunity, with a full embrace of a diverse, multi-voiced future. On the other side, Conservative America desires a rebirth of the abandoned values that used to make the United States a stable, prosperous, and knowable place: faith, common language, loyalty, patriotism, and traditional roles (gender and otherwise).
But is it really possible for a huge, sprawling nation like the United States to have just two basic sides, or just two types of people? The US is the third largest country in the world, by both population and geographical area. There are more than 325 million people in our great nation, an enormous stew of ethnicities, national origins, races, religions, and language groups. We have a dizzying mix of towns, rural stretches, cities, mega-cities, suburbs, and exurbs, each with their own histories, climates, patterns of daily life, and value-systems. How can all of that variety be boiled down to right vs. left, liberal vs. conservative, or any other two-sided description that lines us all up on one side or the other?
This polarization happens via three factors, an interlocking set of tiers that have evolved over the last few decades, and ossifying to such a degree that there appears to be no wiggle room left for change, let alone an escape route. At the base of this set of interlocked tiers is our electoral machinery. Specifically, our winner-take-all method of electing our US House representatives, and of apportioning our Electoral College votes, sustains the two-party duopoly that plagues our federal government. Across the world, democratic countries that use winner-take-all systems to staff their governments have similar two-party stranglehold situations, with the same resulting acrimony and scorched-earth style of politics that we see in the US. Winner-take-all systems cannot support multiple or even third parties, as the machinery itself will not provide the oxygen for their survival. The winner gets 100% of the representation, and the loser gets nothing. These systems inevitably settle into comfortable (for the politicians) us-versus-them patterns, a never-ending and familiarly-scripted battle between petrified establishment iterations.
The alternative to winner-take-all electoral machinery is proportional representation, where multiple parties can gain actual footholds in government, usually via large super-districts, where several top candidates can all be elected. Countries that have proportional representation systems usually develop into coalition governments, where multiple parties frequently cooperate to get things done, as no single party can consistently command a majority. The result, almost universally, is that the political culture of proportional representation countries is less acrimonious, less ideological, and more pragmatic. There is a growing body of evidence to suggest that proportional representation countries are more fiscally and financially stable, because there is a more continuous legacy of cooperative strategizing, which is relatively free of the wild swings of policy that come from political duopolies endlessly swapping places (think of President Trump’s relentless desire to undo all of Obama’s achievements).
Less central than house elections (for this discussion), but very important in its own right, is the presidential election machinery. In the Electoral College, Nebraska and Maine have already moved to proportional allocation of their votes. If more states did this, political disillusionment and disengagement would likely diminish, as there would be less ‘wasted’ votes in states considered safe under the current scheme. Candidates would be forced to campaign in many more states, which would likely temper and modify the hyper-partisan rhetoric.
Sitting atop this electoral machinery, and thus heavily dependent on it, is the second reason for our Divided America story: partisan media. The endless battles between Democrats and Republicans are worth big money, and election season has expanded to engulf every last corner of our waking lives. As there are now virtually no limits on how much money can slosh into our electoral system, the themes of contest and conflict leak into every nook and cranny of our political culture. For the media, the horserace is much easier to cover than complex issues of economics, international relations, the future of work, the state of infrastructure, etc. So news and information organizations load up on the us-versus-them motif, and partisan media organs evolve and emerge to feed off of the energy coming from the combative and acrimonious political landscape. It becomes more difficult for media outlets to remain objective, because partisan conflict attracts more eyeballs and earballs than that stuffy old boring news. Also, doing thorough and detailed reporting is expensive, so there is a huge temptation to embrace the cheaper option of opinion-laced commentary. The overall result here is a massive sorting of people into the partisan media outlets with which they feel most comfortable. As many observers have noted, liberals and conservatives increasingly tend to occupy completely different informational universes. Each ‘side’ has its own TV networks, websites, news aggregators, magazines, and books (yes, books are still a thing), to the effect that millions of people interact in just two ways: talking past each other, and yelling at one another.
But why does this work? Why are so many people content with being fundamentally opposed to, and angry at, a huge subset of their fellow citizens? Why are so many ‘tolerant’ liberals so intolerant of people who have what they consider to be the wrong opinions? And why are so many conservatives, who were traditionally and broadly laissez-faire (basically, live and let live), so riled up about anyone who has a different heritage or lifestyle?
Well, the short answer is that people are not content with this, not really. Most people don’t enjoy constantly lunging for the throats of their compatriots; and that brings us to the third interlocked tier of our problem: conditions on the ground for most Americans are dire. If people were doing better economically, there simply would not be enough negative energy to sustain the high level of cultural combativeness we are currently experiencing. People who are comfortable and secure in their present and their future are not usually obsessed with fighting some domestic enemy within. They are generally happy to let things be, and to let others, no matter how different, pursue their lives however they want.
But when circumstances are grim, as they are now, people are looking for any explanation they can get for what the hell’s going on. And because of the nature of our social primate brains, the best explanations are stories, and the best stories have villains. Narratives that make sense of hardship and calamity are absolutely essential for our day-to-day survival. They are often the only way to turn despair into hope and action. Into this area of need comes the American political duopoly, and the horsemen of the partisan media are close behind. Each side has created its own universal theodicy story, grand tales of why things have gone wrong and who is to blame. And as with all great myths, there are persecuted heroes who strive to do the right thing in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds.
Sometimes, the heroes win. But unfortunately, our problem is that these stories are currently, by necessity, tragedies. While the general tales of the ‘Right’ and the ‘Left’ each have some elements of truth, at bottom they are simply part of a broken system of electoral machinery, partisan media, and eroding economic conditions for regular Americans. And as currently constituted, the solutions that these stories propose are not fully relevant to the very different circumstances that now confront us. At some point, we are going to need to change our electoral machinery, so that a different cultural superstructure can be built on top of it, one less wedded to the us-versus-them trope. But even more immediately, the economic conditions of the masses need to be improved right away, by any means necessary (Universal Basic Income would be the best bet, in my estimation), because the ultimate fuel for a Divided America is basic material deprivation and the resulting personal desperation of millions of people. If that deprivation is not addressed as soon as possible, then division and partisan rage will continue their intensifying boil.