Last year’s election taught us more hard lessons than we can count. We learned that too many of us who claim to be smart about politics were dead wrong. We learned that inherent biases create unbreakable assumptions. We also learned that we are now two divided nations sharing borders, technology and infrastructure but too often little else. In 2017, America is a dual-civilization country, with each viewing the other with suspicion, disgust and disdain.
America is no stranger to conflicts between civilizations. We had fought a Revolution over it. We fought a horrible, bloody and ultimately unifying Civil War between two civilizations who could no longer co-exist. Starting when the first European settlers arrived and hitting its apex in the late 1800s, the United States fought a civilizational battle with Native American tribes across the Great Plains. In each of these instances, one civilization decisively overtook the other thereby subordinating or replacing the weaker of the two. The 20th Century saw less of this, caused perhaps by two world wars and a Cold War, all civilizational struggles in their own rights, largely holding internal American divisions in stasis, creating a co-mingling of regions, religions and creeds that might otherwise have never met and allowed us to view each other as Americans first and sectionalists second.
In 1993, Samuel Huntington writing in Foreign Affairs, posited that the next world conflict would not be among nation-states, Russia v. Germany or the US v. Japan, but a clash of civilizations. A little context: Huntington was writing in the immediate aftermath of the Cold War, the Soviet Union had collapsed, the Iron Curtain had come down and the Berlin Wall was historical rubble. His theory on civilizations is worthy of consideration today. Here are the five components of a civilization according to Huntington:
1. Shared History
I was born in Marietta, Ohio. It is a small town tucked into a bend of the Ohio River across from West Virginia. For the past 50 years its population has hovered somewhere around 15,000 citizens. An old coal town (my mother was born and raised there) and a current college town (Marietta College, my father’s alma mater) looks much today as it did when I was born there 40 years ago. We didn’t stay long. When I was about six months old, we moved to the Washington, DC area.
Many of the jobs that once kept the first permanent settlement in the Northwest Territory moving forward are long gone. Those that stay there now most likely do so because they’ve been there all their lives, have nowhere to go or no way to get there. Like so many other Rust Belt states, lack of opportunity and opioid addiction are on the rise. Just this year, Washington County, Ohio (of which Marietta is the county seat) pharmacies started offering overdose-reversing Naloxone for home use without a doctor’s prescription. Think about that: Folks are going to the Kroger to buy Narcan to keep in their houses in case a friend or family member ODs.
Bobby told Lucy: “The world ain’t round.
“Drops off sharp at the edge of town.
“Lucy, you know the world must be flat.
“‘cause when people leave town, they never come back.”
Hal Ketchum — Small Town Saturday Night
When folks wake up in Marietta, or in a thousand other small American towns they don’t see much of the American dream anymore. The America they see every morning doesn’t look like the one they grew up in, expected to come of age in, or certainly expected for their children. As so many of them told us in last year’s election, the country has passed them by and they’re not happy about it. They may watch Fox News and listen to Rush or Mark Levin or any of the conservative talk radio yakkers who tell them they’re getting screwed by the politicians in Washington. As distasteful as his hyperbole and message may be, in someways, Rush is right: the old manufacturing towns, and most below-the-line Americans (of all colors) are getting screwed. On any given day, most folks in Washington are far more concerned about whatever lobbyist just came into complain about than figuring out how to restore the economic and cultural fabric of the vast majority of the United States.
Contrast that with a place like Park Slope, Brooklyn. With more than three times the population of Marietta, in just one neighborhood, Park Slope is an exemplar of what an American urban renaissance looks like. It ranks highly in per capita income and has excellent public schools supported by soaring property values. Jobs are plentiful just over the bridge (or through the tunnel) to Manhattan. A 2,300 square foot home in Park Slope runs more than $1 million (you can purchase a similarly sized home in Marietta for less than $200,000.) Drug use, probably high-grade marijuana, is a part of life — a happy part of life.
Waking up to a new day in Park Slope is not just a different zip code, for folks in towns like Marietta, it might as well be Mars. They know where they’re going to work and know, know, their kids are safe walking to school. They look forward to visiting one of many new boutiques or organic quinoa cafes that have sprung up in the last decade or so to keep up with the demand for an upwardly mobile and plugged-in clientele. They love discussing quinoa with their friends and paying $25 for it. After all, you’re eating an ancient grain originally grown by the Inca. The Inca!
When Brooklynites turn on their televisions, they don’t deign to watch Fox News except for a laugh or to watch a 90 second clip of the latest outrage. NPR plays on a continuous loop throughout the neighborhood. Folks discuss the latest hard-hitting piece in Vox or the Huffington Post and accept it as the gospel. The Sunday New York Times is the secular Bible. Netflix, Hulu, Apple TV, HBO Go, all the subscription services are must-haves; you can watch what you want to watch, when you want to watch it, how you want to watch it, where you to watch it.
The media divide today is so real and pervasive that neither the Red Country nor the Blue Nation will accept the other’s news outlets as legitimate disseminators of objective information. In the eyes of Team Red, the Main Stream Media is a wholly owned subsidiary of the liberal, internationalist left. For the Blue Squad, so-called conservative media is beholden to cranks and conspiracy theorists, worthy only of scorn and head-shaking disbelief.
Long-hailed or derided as “fly-over country,” major news outlets now send reporters out into the hinterlands on the heels of big events to gauge the opinions of the hustings’ denizens. With the exception of a handful of journalists who’ve covered this divide extensively, it’s become almost a cottage industry for writers and cable networks to have a reporter dedicated to spending time in these vast, deep red areas, as if they never existed until they rose up and helped elect Trump last year. Finally worthy of attention and study, the coverage too often still has an anthropological feel to it. “Well, Brian, here we have…”
Residents of Marietta and Park Slope probably both believe in American “values” and “freedom” — but freedom from what, and for whom? If you live in Marietta, you probably feel regularly bombarded by pop culture that doesn’t reflect your way of life, belief system or reality. Maybe you just want to be left alone. If you’re lucky enough to live in Park Slope, and because you live in Park Slope, you likely believe that your worldview is correct, morally superior and should be adopted by everyone, everywhere. Anyone who disagrees with this assessment is a luddite.
When participating in media interviews, some of my hosts will state flatly that anyone who voted for Donald Trump is a racist. If you pulled the lever for the president, you turned your back on decades of institutional racism and accepted, part and parcel, his numerous white ethno-nationalist statements. Unfortunately, Trump’s candidacy did allow many political earthworms to surface, but the “Trump voter as racist” trope overlooks two key factors: 1) We are at our core still highly tribal in our politics. You’re red or you’re blue. You vote Republican or Democrat. Those are the choices. 2) That voters in states like Ohio and Wisconsin, far from bastions of the old Confederacy, may have seen Secretary Hillary Clinton as a continuation of the systemic diminution of working-class voices and concerns, and frankly they just weren’t going to take it anymore: Even if President Trump was the unsavory answer to their angry question.
For a nation so divided, it is telling that in 2016 both sides chose nominees that bear so little resemblance to the people for whom they were claiming to speak. While Donald Trump may have riled up the anger in coal country, he’s never had to actually put on a hardhat to go to work. Yet, white working class voters flocked to him in the millions. Hillary Clinton, by contrast, may have garnered all the votes of her campaign’s neighbors in Park Slope, but her message did little to resonate with Bernie Sanders’ ultra-progressive supporters, suburban independents or African Americans who for decades created a bulwark in urban areas for Democratic nominees. Ultimately, Trump was able to turn out his base and Clinton wasn’t. Welcome to the longest first 100 days in American presidential history.
In his thesis, Huntington marks religion as the most important differentiator between civilizations. That divide is on display within the Red and Blue nations living within America’s borders. Smaller, rural or more conservative areas are more likely to be religious. Bigger, densely populated cities see a lower percentage of the population attending church or viewing the world through a religious prism. When then-Senator Barack Obama, speaking at a fundraiser in San Francisco’s swanky Pacific Heights neighborhood claimed that conservative Americans “cling to God and guns,” there was outrage on the right. Was that outrage sparked by the soon-to-be president’s cultural elitism or because he was in some ways right and struck an exposed nerve? In some respects, both are probably true.
“They get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.” — Senator Barack Obama, 2008
If, in the face of personal or economic hardship, a person goes to church to find comfort and community, why is that a bad thing? Regardless of your zip code, everyone has issues with which they contend, and different outlets to confront them. In Marietta, it may be the congregations of St. Luke’s or First Presbyterian that open their arms to those looking for some meaning. In Park Slope, perhaps they pray to the gods of the grape, and raise a glass, or three, every afternoon, to overcome the realities and hardships of everyday life that will drive anyone to look for distraction.
In 2017’s America, religion is also a wedge explicitly used to divide us. From the well of the House of Representatives, the president trumpeted the fight against “radical Islamic terrorism” against the advice of his own national security advisor. When Trump does this, he incites anger and mistrust within his base against a faith that numbers more than 1.6 billion adherents worldwide. It is possible to simultaneously believe ISIS is an evil force that deserves eradication and the world’s other 1.599 billion Muslims aren’t out to get us or establish a caliphate within America’s borders.
But Blue America is too often unwilling or unable to call out an objective evil when it shows itself; somehow preferring to see America as an overbearing power who must face and contend with its transgressions. Some of this too, is true. Because today if a little outrage is good, than a lot of outrage is better, both sides run to their respective corners and get ready for the next round of zero-sum, “I’m right therefore you’re wrong,” sparring.
Red America and Blue America may agree on little, but on two major issues they’re of similar minds, even if they come from different places. The recent healthcare debacle in Congress was indicative of a Washington generally, and Republican leadership specifically, that was knowingly ignorant of its citizens. They forgot that Donald Trump got elected by those same coal miners in Kentucky, many of whom rely on the Bluegrass State’s expanded Medicaid system to gain coverage. While those in Park Slope may believe in single-payer, they see Obamacare as a worthy substitute — if the end goal is offering more Americans coverage. There is a reason why public opinion surveys had the American Healthcare Act clocking in at a whopping 17% approval: that sort of universal disdain doesn’t come from just one side of the aisle.
On taxes, too, most in Park Slope and in Marietta will likely agree that what Congress is about to propose is a bad deal for most Americans. In Marietta, it is entirely likely that you want rich people to pay more taxes, believe corporations don’t pay enough and don’t want your bill at Wal-Mart to rise by 20%. In Park Slope, you may not like paying taxes, but see it as your duty as a successful American. Though you likely receive your paycheck from a publicly-traded multinational corporation, you have no real love for them and don’t believe they should pay less than they do now. As for Wal-Mart, you probably stopped at one on your cross-country road trip years ago, or when you needed a stroller in a pinch on that vacation to Maui.
These are tendrils of agreement and unity that we must foster. We all have a responsibility to begin the process of healing by reaching out to someone we don’t agree with and understanding their point of view. This does not mean agreeing with it. Understanding means setting aside the purity of your beliefs, if just for a few minutes, to even believe that someone holds a different, but valid, worldview. From the public sector the to town hall meeting, we as citizens must be the white blood cells for a republic infected by anger, distrust and disdain.
This is not easy, nor will it always be fun. Reaching out does not mean convincing someone that you are right and they are wrong: doing that is missing the point. Our political and media landscapes both allow and encourage us to look only for the news and opinions that reinforce those beliefs we already hold.
If you live in Park Slope, try and imagine walking a mile in Marietta’s Redwings. If you live in Marietta, try and understand what Park Slope’s clogs feel like for a day. People in both places, despite the distance in miles and lifestyle, ultimately want the same thing: a world that is, for their children, or their families, or their country or the world, better tomorrow than it is today. Someday soon, find someone you know you disagree with and talk to them. Simply talk to them. Sit down and have a conversation — words do matter. They matter immensely. Once they’re gone, only bad options remain.
If there are rays of sunlight peaking through the gray clouds of Trump’s election, they are the hundreds of groups and millions of people, from across the political spectrum, whom have decided to stand up and begin charting a different path forward for the greatest republic the world has ever known. Groups like the Centrist Project, the Serve America Movement, Matthew Dowd’s Country Over Party, Stand Up Republic and Action Utahare doing yeoman work, left, right and center, in bringing politics back down to Earth. This is truly the only way we will make significant change — from the bottom up. Those at the top either have too much at stake, or are too rigid in their tribalism to make significant changes. Groups like those above, and the millions of Americans who can and should get involved, can begin making the course corrections we desperately need to get back on the path to prosperity.
This Republic of ours isn’t great because of our government, or our companies, or our technology. This Republic is great because of our people; and it is our people — all of us, that will return us to a place where we are all proud to call ourselves “American.”