The other day I predicted to a friend that depending on the outcome of the November 2020 presidential election, America could be on the brink of Civil War.
But, as I thought more, I realized we are already in Civil War. Today’s weapons of choice are more memes than muskets.
The polarization and division of our population is as deep as the Union and the Confederacy in the 1860s. And the stakes are just as high, with the future of our country, culture, and society hanging in the balance.
How did we get so divided?
Our country is dominated by two rival tribes. Each is utterly convicted in their belief they are solely and uniquely patriotic in wanting the best for America and each equally certain the other side is willfully and carelessly destroying our nation.
The opposing narratives are stark.
Online media distributed by machine learning technology, optimized to drive user engagement, have perpetuated two polarized, unnuanced, and binary views of the world. All things are seen as black or white, with neither side able to recognize shades of grey.
A profound (yet simple) insight was revealed to me upon devouring Tim Urban’s ambitious and compelling “The Story of Us” published on his remarkable “Wait But Why” blog. Over two years in the making, and soon to be reformatted into a must-read book, his series offers an explanation of mankind and society through bridging anthropology, sociology, psychology, biology, and behavioural economics. The series explains how we find ourselves stuck in a world where two conflicting worldviews have become so entrenched and unproductive.
In Chapter 9, Urban successfully distills his point of view on the fundamental conflict between progressives and conservatives. He writes:
Progressivism = concerned with helping society make forward progress — positive changes to the status quo. That progress can come from identifying what you deem to be a flaw in your nation’s systems or its culture and working to root it out, or by trying to make your nation’s strong points even stronger.
Conservatism = concerned with conserving what is already good about society — either by fighting against the erosion of what you deem to be your nation’s strong qualities, or by pushing back against well-intentioned attempts at positive progress that you believe, in reality, will prove to be changes for the worse, not for the better.
Conflict between progressive and conservative camps is not new. Today’s conflict is fought on an emotional frontline with respect to who is more patriotic, who loves our country more, and therefore who holds the highest moral ground.
It is a false conflict. Both sides truly want a ‘great’ America. Each just has a fundamentally different belief in how to get there.
Progressives push ahead and embrace “forward progress” in advancing to a better world through modernizing and evolving social norms, values, laws, and culture. Conservatives fight to preserve a better world by holding onto the hard-earned norms, values, laws, and culture that have endured as a backbone for past “success” (admittedly defined by those who benefited from such success). Together, a Darwinian survival-of-the-fittest process ensures only the most battle-tested ideas make it through, allowing society to systematically advance forward, if sometimes cautiously.
This works like a well-functioning car. Progressives control the accelerator and conservatives man the brakes.
New ideas get pressure tested. Early adopters experiment (indeed, often on college campuses). Mainstream pushes back. Some ideas die off. Others get legs and cross over to an “early majority” and then become adopted by mainstream.
The evolution of American views on gay marriage over the past 20-odd years is a classic example of this push and pull dynamic as views shifted from radical to mainstream over the course of a generation.
Progressives and conservatives act as a check and balance to each other. As counter-balances, working together can ensure we move forward as a society, while minimizing risks of missteps in progressing too quickly. This dynamic is healthy.
Until it’s not.
We’ve entered an unhealthy phase where neither side values the role of the other.
Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign slogan “Make America Great Again” is one of the most powerful four-word slogans of all time. The money word here is “Again” which signals to supporters to glorify the world as it was, while implying we can get back to this “better” time. The phrasing accuses America of not being great anymore, while implicitly blaming progressives (socialists!) forces for it.
Meanwhile, left-leaning elites counter by tarring the right with a single brush, throwing the baby out with the bathwater — connecting opposing political views with character assassinations leaving little room for listening let alone discourse.
Us versus Them.
Middle ground between progressives and conservatives has been lost. Absent common ground, progressives “floor it” and press the accelerator indiscriminately on every cause, while conservatives stubbornly stomp on the brakes to ensure there is no movement on any topic. We are stuck.
Have you ever tried driving a car with both pedals fully pressed at the same time? This is America right now.
The tires are spinning and starting to smoke, the engine is about to blow. The car either stalls or spins out as if doing donuts in a sideshow.
As an American living abroad the past ten years, it has been hard to watch America sit in our self-inflicted traffic jam, while the rest of the world happily cruises by. Americans want to keep believing in “American exceptionalism” and our “rightful” place at the top of the global pecking order, but anyone who has spent time out in the world knows how decidedly second-tier our hospitals, roads, hotels, airports, public transport, health services, schools, and social services have become. Sorry, USA. You can argue all you want, but it is the unfortunate truth.
The August 6, 2020 Rolling Stone article “The Unravelling of America” by Wade Davis does a sobering job of capturing this sentiment, noting all global empires eventually end. Davis suggests America’s botched ability to respond to COVID19 symbolizes the end of the American empire (1945–2020) as any remaining credibility and admiration held by rest of the world has gone up in smoke.
Conservative American exceptionalists reading this far are by now calling me names. But I’m a patriot, too.
And maybe this is how we begin to get unstuck. By appreciating we all want a better America.
Colin Kaepernick, Edward Snowden, Chelsea Manning, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, and James Comey are every bit as patriotic as Ann Coulter, Ben Shapiro, Pat Buchanan, Condoleezza Rice, Peter Thiel, and Clarence Thomas.
These people ALL love America. And all want a better America.
We are stuck because of deeply entrenched and polarizing beliefs held by each side that theirs is a singular path toward a better America — a dead-lock tug-of-war with one side in fast forward while the other in full retreat.
Our respective narratives and world views have become so isolated and disconnected from each other that our final remaining commonality are cute animal videos. Eventually we can count on troll-bots to figure out how to polarize even those, and soon we will be fighting like cats and dogs about those as well.
Progressive readers are now the ones doing the name calling. “But how can you condone the lies?” “The blatant destruction of our foundational institutions.” “The corporate kleptocratic pilfering of our coffers.” “The slide into autocratic totalitarianism!”
Exactly. The stakes couldn’t possibly be higher.
To be clear, my desire to defuse our Civil War neither condones nor belittles the dangerous situation America finds itself in 2020. Rather it is to underline the point that healthier checks and balances are needed now more than ever to find our way out — to defuse the bomb.
Because finger-pointing, name-calling and parroting talking points at each other only shortens the fuse and does not extinguish it.
I believe it starts here: We’ve forgotten our car needs both a functioning accelerator and a good set of brakes. To get to a better America, we need both. And improve together.
“United we stand, divided we fall.” We’ve become divided. Now we’ve fallen.
And so we find ourselves in a modern and digital Civil War. If you don’t believe me, I suspect you have somehow successfully avoided social media.
The content big tech serves up is not called a “feed” for nothing. You are fed articles a machine thinks you will like. You are fed headlines you will probably click on. You are fed pictures you are predicted to like. You are fed search results that you will click on (your search results are different than mine). You are fed videos you are inclined to watch. It’s just bait for you to feed on. Then, as you engage, the machine learns what you like, refines its logic, and narrows the content further. Eventually, you are fed only what you will feed on. And, it is so, so delicious.
We are all stuck in this game. Our narratives have become so narrow and we are constantly fed evidence that our world view is right. It is eating our society alive as we each build contempt and disgust for one another.
Don’t hate the player, hate the game.
So what can we then do to disarm this destructive Civil War? There is no silver bullet, but here are some thoughts:
- Understand we all want the same thing: a better America. Re-read the full list of names above, and embrace the common desire for better — especially the names which make you squirm.
- Appreciate the system of accelerator and brakes. Recognize that we benefit from both working well together. If you identify as conservative, value the role of the gas pedal. If you lean progressive, tap on the brakes once in a while.
- Break the media tech algorithm. Big tech is (unwittingly?) feeding a toxic beast. The optimization for engagement has driven enragement. That our nation lives in two completely disconnected realities has made America weak as we gaslight each other. An intervention is needed for the health of our society and we need collective conviction (public and private) to fix technology driven echo chambers.
- Elect more balanced leaders who unify. One-dimensional partisan leaders who have no accountibility to broader community members have little incentive to compromise and find mutually agreeable solutions. Let’s make blatant partisan gerrymandering illegal.
- Demand campaign finance reform. Better yet, reverse Citizens United in the Supreme Court. Giving corporations “free speech” rights in the form of SuperPACs opened a wormhole in 2010 for big money and corporate interests to hijack our government and buy corporate favors at the expense of the interests of our citizens. This wormhole needs shuttering.
- Learn from the rest of the world. America must learn to embrace and adopt best practices from other nations. Let’s be humble and accept that our way is not the only way, let alone always the best way.
- Chill out, already! Not everything has to become so high-stakes and emotional. Defuse instead of escalate.
- Be generous and presume the good intent of others. See point one.
Look, I’m just a Gen-X guy who loves his country, trying to make sense of what its become in 2020. I hope for a better America, and I bet you do, too.
My dream is this post gets oxygen and finds readers inside both bubbles. That these ideas resonate with enough thoughtful conservatives and progressives to be shared — to stimulate further debate and consideration across both tribes. To begin to break the cycle. I hope you will help by sharing.
Let’s end the Civil War and start making America better, together.