The war of all against all in America

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The all too common perception of American politics

The 1990s began with great promise. I watched the wall across Europe come down and the international coalition to force Iraq out of Kuwait and hoped that we might finally fulfill what Enlightenment thinking had made possible.

I grew up in the latter part of the Cold War. The world on the evening news and Sunday programs was divided into two neat sides, and while Democrats and Republicans would argue with each other about domestic policy, hardly anyone questioned our perceived duty to be the opponent of the communist part of the world.

But as I grew up, I found out that things were not so simple — that is a fundamental part of growing up, after all. I asked my fundamentalist father how a president could lie to Congress and the voters by selling weapons to our enemy, Iran, and by using the money to get involved in drug deals in Central America. His answer was that things are complicated. This was revealing coming from someone who presented absolutist stances on moral questions that involved my own behavior.

Another shocking incident, coming around the same time as I read Isaac Asimov’s Inside the Atom and so was able to comprehend something of the science involved, was the airing of The Day After, a broadcast that I am still surprised that my parents let me watch — I had to promise that I would not make disruptive rocket noises at school the next day. I cannot recall if this was my first introduction to the horrors of nuclear war, but it is a good stand-in if not actually the earliest revelation. I now understand that its perspective is in fact too hopeful. The Soviet film released a few years later, Dead Man’s Letters, was more realistic. The discussion that followed The Day After may have introduced me to Carl Sagan, and the more I learned about what nuclear war would mean, the more I realized that human civilization depended on the mood of madmen.

But in theory, this was all supposed to have come to an end after the communist nations fell apart over the period of 1989 to 1991 — at least we in the west assumed that we had won, that everything was now settled. Whatever problems remained — and there were many that we had avoided acknowledging — would be solved through a cheerful application of neoliberal political and economic theory, extending free trade — the opportunity to work for the lowest wages and longest hours in the worst conditions — to all, so long as each participant government makes the right noises about protecting human rights.

It was a beautiful fantasy, and it lasted not even a full year. The disintegration of Yugoslavia turned violent in the summer of 1991, lasting for a decade off and on, and the Rwandan genocide come in 1994. Here in the United States, the acquittal of the police officers who had beaten Rodney King resulted in six days of riots in 1992. And that brief mist of hope that came after the end of the dichotomy of the Cold War evaporated into the clear perception that we were in a war of all against all.

The question that all of this raised for me was how can people who disagree — be it about religion, politics, or other matters of how we organize and live our lives — work together or even live in the same general region. The nearly thirty years that have followed have not attenuated the bite of this question.

A skimming of social media will confirm what I am saying: We have become a balkanized country. If I do not agree in every detail of every point with someone else, too often conversation decompensates into the sprays of vitriol and the swamping of any exchange of ideas. The election has only intensified the pressure in the hoses. This is not unique in American history. We did, after all, have a civil war, a representative beat a senator into insensibility in the Senate chamber, and our earliest contested elections offer instruction to the present’s sloganeers. And our safety valve, the lands to the west, were stolen from the people who lived there first. That we have accomplished as much as a nation as we have is all the more astonishing given how fractured we always have been.

In part, our fragmentation may have been our saving grace. When we have divided neatly in two — or acted as if we did, as in the conflicts over slavery — we have ended up killing each other. When instead we went our many ways, we found out that at times, those paths would align to take us to great things. If we value diversity rather than merely tolerating it, we have to comprehend that unity will be a rare event.

And that is one of our strengths. Whatever solution we require to any problem, the chances are good that someone will have come up with it. For the most part, we have managed to disagree with each other by going to our separate corners, rather than killing each other. Comparing us to the Balkans is instructive here. While we have been demographically European and Christian, our constitution created a secular nation not based on ethnicity. You can hate me for who I am, and I can feel the same way about you, but neither of us are supposed to be able to find support for our antipathies in the structure of our society. We have not always lived up to that ideal, but it is in the core of what it means to be an American: Be as contrary as you like, so long as you extend that right to everyone else.

Sadly, we have allowed our political system to be shunted into a false dichotomy of Republicans and Democrats today. The labels change, but we have since our beginning had a bimodal distribution of liberals and authoritarians, progressives and conservatives. For the person who is thoroughly a Democrat or a Republican, political life is easy, but the reality is that many of us find ourselves manipulated into patterns not our own. Consider how difficult it would be to get a straight answer to the question of whether we join the party that is most like us in thinking or if our thinking becomes most like the party we join. Party members may be entirely honest in claiming that they joined what they matched and may be entirely confused about their own histories.

Us and them is a great subject for a Pink Floyd song, but our national motto — before we forced religious conformity, anyway — is e pluribus unum, and we too often want to conceal the many in that. The higher we build the sharp peaks of that bimodal distribution, the less we care about what makes sense, about what we agree with because of rational argument rather than team identity.

Two peaks lead me to think about two solutions. For one thing, we need more than two parties. This is not impossible, despite what the current two major parties want us to believe, and the rules of the House and Senate are determined by the House and Senate, making a different approach to the legislature something that can be done without a constitutional amendment. The Green Party, for example, could cooperate with the Democrats when the latter make any sense, and the Libertarians could do the same with the Republicans under similar conditions. And while the president is not chosen by the legislature, said person is elected by a plurality, not necessarily a majority. Multiple parties are not precluded by our executive branch.

The other immediate solution is a commitment to listen to what people who disagree with us are in fact saying and to address their points, rather than battling with straw men. If you will not listen to me, why should I listen to you? If I will not give direct answers to the points you raise, why should you take my points seriously? And if I never agree to treat your concerns as having at least some merit, I can hardly expect that you will extend to me that courtesy. This does not mean that we must agree with each other. It means that we ought to fight each other honestly, treating our opponents as legitimate combatants, rather than as children to be condescended to. And, I wish this went without saying, we are also obliged to make our own arguments worthy of a field of honor and not just the games of trolls.

We can fight each other without ending up in a conflict like what the world saw in the Balkans in the 90s. From this intellectual combat will emerge ideas that create large enough blocs to get things done. But we can only do this if we cease treating public discourse as a bloated football game in which all that matters is moving a meaningless marking object along meaningless lines to run up our team’s meaningless score.

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