When people are this pissed off, it means both sides are missing something. There is no common ground, no happy medium that would serve as a starting point to begin mending the deep divisions that exist in the U.S.
But perhaps all the division, all the vitriol, shouldn’t be that surprising. In a recent interview with Charlie Rose, Jon Stewart talks about the United States as an anomaly. “America is not natural,” he says. “Natural is tribal. We are fighting against thousands of years of human behavior and history to create something that no one has ever [created].”
Of course, the U.S. is not the only country doing what Stewart is suggesting, which I take is the promoting of democracy across a multicultural population, but his ultimate point makes sense, especially when you look at where we came from – tribes. Humanity can be territorial and suspicious of what is different. That’s a part of our nature, and history is riddled with fallen countries and empires split apart because different groups of people couldn’t get along or because certain groups of people outright destroyed others.
But throughout human history we have gradually altered our behavior to include more of those around us. Technological developments have helped make this possible, just as philosophical and moral advancements have led many to believe in the innate rights of all people. As Steven Pinker suggests, the Golden Rule, the maxim that we should treat each other the way we want to be treated, has expanded our circle to allow more of what was once thought of as “the other.” Yes, one can point to plenty of examples that run counter to this, but the fact remains that this trend has allowed more people to coexist in our modern age, and it’s this this philosophy that has emerged as one of the central pillars of democratic thought, and ultimately the United States itself. It is found in the language used to declare our independence, all the way to the lessons we teach our schoolchildren.
And while we are certainly not the only country that holds these ideals, we are the biggest country, a superpower with the most influence in the world. Despite the rifts that lie between us, we have yet to combust and have generally thrived by spearheading more global contact in business and culture. This might be all we need to prove that something right has been happening in our country’s history, a history that is made from diverse groups of people who got here because of immigration. This is a part of our national identity, from the colonists that founded this country to each successive wave that has arrived since and all the people that have grown up here.
So before we figure out what we are missing, maybe should look into what we have, what has kept us together this far.
No matter what side of the nation’s divide you are on, there seems to be what Matt Stone describes as “American optimism.” There is a feeling that the country has done great things throughout its history and is just a few steps away from doing more amazing things. “A lot of times its naïve,” he says, “and it’s unfounded, and it’s even wrong, but it’s somehow that optimism that keeps America looking forward and trying to make the world better. And I really do think that’s something that’s unique to America that doesn’t exist in a lot of the world.”
A lot of people hold this belief in America, a belief in the inherent good of the country. When one side perceives things are going well, this belief is the reason for that. When they see things as going poorly, American optimism gives confidence that the country can get out from what is plaguing it. It’s impossible to find agreement in what the good in America is or what the problems we face are and how we should best deal with them, but it’s not for a lack of belief.
And who is it that gives people a reason why there is such belief in this country? Our Founding Fathers. Many from both of our divided sides give the Founding Fathers the kind of reverence akin to religious leaders, and both sides use our Founders to justify their own actions and ideologies, sometimes legitimately, often times illegitimately. Even when we note the hypocrisy in the actions of these men, faith in them continues.
Sure, it’s inaccurate to lump all of the Founders together as if they all agreed on what was best for our fledgling nation. Divisions existed among them. Some were more reluctant than others to fully separate from Britain, and when the decision had finally been made, there was plenty of disagreement about how to proceed in forming a new government. Compromises were struck, but political parties had begun to form and allegiances had been made, sowing the seeds for some of the ideological differences that exist within us today. Yet we still hold these guys with high regard. There is an optimism in them that extends to the potential of America.
This nation was born out of the belief that Great Britain was trampling on the rights of her American colonies. Unjust taxation without proper representation and the Crown meddling in colonial government would ultimately push the colonies to complete separation. The Declaration of Independence is as much of a document of U.S. independence from Great Britain as it is a declaration that government should not impede on the rights of its people. Inherent in our national identity is the notion of the underdog who rose up against a government that did not respect the rights of those who had forged out on a new continent, liberty and freedom triumphing with them.
Nowadays, it’s the U.S. government accused of such infringement, an accusation made by both sides. Those in government who are perceived to be on the wrong side are blamed, and quick work is made ascribe the cause of a problem them and other Americans, creating a rift that has lead to the blame, bitterness, and contempt we see today.
Of course, this is not the most sensible way to go about things, but if history has taught us anything, it’s that groups of people are not the most rational; it’s up to great individuals to help show them how to be. And what we have learned about politics is that it’s a game of struggle, leverage, and power. Opposing sides go against each other to impose their solution rather than finding a real solution. It’s a reactionary game that goes back and forth.Rarely do we see opposing sides come together to form an ultimate solution. When we do, we remember it, for it is held with great respect in history. Indeed, an ultimate solution was agreed upon by our young and untested nation in its infancy, and we face a time when the need for such a solution is critical.
I would love to see an emerging leader try to understand why both sides are so pissed off right now and actually listen to what is going on out there, not just from one group of Americans but from all of America. I’d love to see a leader that represents everyone, someone who doesn’t belong to just one group but is admired by many. It wouldn’t come without debate, disagreement, or hardship, but it would come with a sincere eye toward doing what’s best of society. And I want an audience who is willing to listen to new ideas and be willing to take the best of their ideas and act on them with the best of the other’s ideas, people open to compromise instead of people pushing their ideology.
It seems simple and logical, but we have become a world where those two things are exceedingly hard to find, which perhaps makes this very notion too idealistic. But hey, that’s what our optimism is for.