Joseph Stiglitz wrote an editorial which appeared in the New York Times on December 21st, in which he remarked with chagrin at what he views as the erosion of trust among Americans. In large part, he ascribed this to a growing economic gap between what is commonly referred to as “the 1%” and the rest of America.
Without debating the relative merits of his identified causes, I submit that Americans do have a basic “trust” in each other – if by that one means the confidence that most people will pay their bills, abide by their promises, or fulfill their contracts. But I think the problem is deeper than economic inequality and it is reflected in our political and social debates, playing out across all media, every day. What distresses me is the extent to which Americans now seem to believe the worst about each other generally, even in the face of ample proof to the contrary.
The ongoing demonization of the Tea Party is one example of this. News articles and commentary routinely paint conservative Americans with false and inaccurate labels: “racists,” “sexists,” “selfish,” etc. I’m sure it’s possible to find a truly malevolent human being who happens to identify with some principles of smaller government or fiscal responsibility. But the overwhelming majority of “Tea Partiers” are Americans who pay their bills, raise their children, volunteer at schools, worship as they wish (or don’t), start and run businesses, employ people, give charitably and otherwise lead their lives. They are your neighbors, your friends, your co-workers, the owners of your community’s businesses, the parents of your children’s friends.
This is just as true of Americans on the left side of the political equation. Having worked in the entertainment business or in higher education since 1988, most of my friends and colleagues have tended to be to the left of me politically. These are not “anarchists” or “libertines” who are seeking the destruction of western civilization. They, too, are hard workers, compassionate colleagues, loyal friends. They pay their mortgages, love their spouses, raise their children, go to swim meets and soccer games, volunteer for committees, participate in local charities. These are your neighbors, your friends, your colleagues, the teachers of your children.
None of this takes away from the issues about which we are passionate. But we have more in common than we admit. (For example, Left and Right have equal reason to decry government deception or corporate manipulation of markets.) More to the point, the national conversation has not only become poisonous, it’s also completely backwards. We see the country as “us” and “them,” but then carve out exceptions for the “thems” we know personally. We should be doing precisely the opposite: looking at the common humanity and basic goodness of those we know personally and extrapolating out from there. Familiarity does not breed contempt, it makes contempt more difficult.
It’s hard to know precisely what has caused all this. But part of it, I am convinced, is the excessive politicization of our lives. Political discourse has always been rough and tumble. Politicians and the press have a unique ability to set the tone for debate, particularly during election years. But the advent of social media has changed the dynamic. This phenomenon is no longer confined to political opponents, nor is it confined to election years. Media is everywhere. And yet somehow we never really get to discuss the key aspects of our differences; opposing viewpoints are drowned out in an escalating volley of epithets.
Everyone I know wants a peaceful nation, and a more peaceful world. The ability to raise and educate our children so that they are healthy and whole and prosperous individuals. A reduction in crime. The elimination of hunger. Communities without blight. Clean air and water. Wholesome food. The preservation of individual freedom.
I can make plenty of arguments about why I maintain that smaller government permits us to lead our lives in relative peace and better address the problems we face, but that is a column for another day. For now, I am only saying that if we could agree - at least - that for the most part, we seek to accomplish similar objectives, but disagree about means, then we could have rational conversations about the relative efficacy of those means, instead of the thrust-and-parry of accusations (“The Right hates the poor!” “The Left hates America!”) that obscures any real debate now.
Ironically, it seems the only time we acknowledge the mutual good in each other is when tragedy strikes: the tornado in Joplin, Missouri, the murders of the children in Newtown, Connecticut, or Hurricane Sandy’s devastation along the northeast. In those instances, the outpouring of shared sorrow and compassion and support shows us who we truly are – and who we can be.
But innumerable acts of comparable kindness take place every day without public acclaim: in ambulances and emergency rooms, in classrooms and social workers’ offices, in soup kitchens and corporations. Each of us can point to dozens of people we know personally who do good nearly every day of their lives. This is who we are as a people. For further proof, you need only ask yourself this: consider the person who is the apotheosis of the political viewpoint you disagree with most strongly. Would you pull him or her out of a burning building? Would you help their children escape from the wreckage of a school destroyed by a storm? Would you take food to their families if they lost everything in a natural disaster?
For nearly everyone, the answer is of course.
I truly believe that there was a time when we instinctively knew this; when we believed in and identified with the best about each other; when we saw our ordinary kindnesses as attributes of being American, if not being human. One of the most disappointing aspects of our politics today is the absence of leaders who honestly appeal to that which is best about Americans. Perhaps this is a function of the “divide-and-conquer” demographic approach to vote-getting. If so, I think that it is a failed political strategy, and ultimately corrosive. We are seeing the effects of that corrosion in our country at present.
It is Christmas. Why not decide to see the good in your fellow Americans? Not just for the day, but henceforth? That is the gift expressed in the words of Luke, and in the words of Christ himself throughout His life: “Love one another.” (It is worth noting that He never said, “Agree with one another.”)
2014 is an election year. For those of you running for political office, why not defy conventional wisdom and show that you actually believe in America and Americans? Why not stop referring to “the 1%” or “the 47%” or “the 99%”? Those are numbers created by pollsters and propagandists. Why refer to “two Americas”; the “haves and the have nots”; or multiple ethnicities and special interest groups? Why not talk to all of us as Americans?
Finally, why should we not insist upon an honest conversation about the challenges we face, recognition of the basic goodness of the people we are, the soundness of our foundational principles, and the many options we can have available which both preserve our liberties and make manifest our concern for our neighbors?
It would be a very good way to start the New Year.