When the melting pot has stopped melting and started stirring, you need to try something else. America was always the land of opportunity, where working hard meant getting ahead and doing well was not just allowed but encouraged. Where you could mind your own business and where your right to believe the craziest of things was routinely accepted and then overlooked in service of more worldly things. From Disneyland to massive film festivals to setting up crazy cities in the desert, the American way was to cherish diversity and independence: the ability ‒ right, even ‒ for everyone to do their thing.
Or so it told itself.
Now, however, something seems broken ‒ and I’m certainly not the first to point that out. Many clashes at dinner tables and arguments in the living room have exposed the rifts between people: over politics, over the ruling of the country, over health care and who ought to pay for it, over how the pandemic changed people’s lives and how we ought to behave in this strange new world. The particular American fight over masks ‒ wearing them or not? Do they work or not? ‒ became an illustrating symbol that signaled righteousness or deviance, loyalty to the establishment and others’ well-being or a hatred for the same.
The personal became incredibly political.
In an age just slowly adjusting to how megaphone-esque social media landscapes alter our behavior, perception and understanding of our fellow humans, no personal stone seemed unturned. The political parties have noticeably become more hostile towards, as well as moving ideologically away from each other. Somewhere between one-sixth and one-third of Republicans and Democrats alike report that they would be upset if their child married someone from the opposite party. Perhaps there was always some resentment for political opponents, but it seems on display and on a magnitude not previously seen.
The pandemic, both through its invasive political policies and behavior among people, is only the tip of this collapsing iceberg, where everyone’s business is everyone else’s to meddle with. Where your ideological or political persuasion is a moral failure subjecting you to an endless amount of scorn, hatred, and even violence.
We see it in our families, where everyone now has political rifts; we see it in our dating life, where sorting according to partisanship is increasingly a thing; we most certainly see it among friends that can no longer put politics aside and even break friendships because you voted for the wrong ruler or wore (or didn’t wear) the wrong piece of cloth before your face. In the workplace, you better sign off on the correct values or see your employment at risk.
Increasingly, like media commentators left and right have sputtered for years, Americans live in isolated informational bubbles. They literally don’t see the same reality; they misinterpret facts presented to them according to partisan convictions. A longstanding result in psychology is that intelligence does not help to offset this: the smarter one is, the clever ways one finds to spin factual results and arguments in buttressing one’s own already-established opinion.
The British journalist Douglas Murray in The Madness of Crowds: Gender, Race and Identity reflects a lot on this inability to value discourse and disagreement. Reflecting on the widening chasms in British and American political life, he writes that to live together
“[W]e have to find some way to get along together. It is the only option we have because otherwise, if we have come to the conclusion that talking and listening respectfully are futile, the only tool left for us is violence.”
For years before the January “Storming of the U.S. Capitol,” Murray ‒ and many others with him ‒ have warned about the dangers of politicizing life and staking moral and social triumph on whoever sits in the White House or runs Westminster. While the protests and the event itself was unexpected, nobody is really surprised that it happened. This is what political life has come to ‒ under a large and powerful government, I might add.
It’s easy to file the storming under “crazy right-wingers” or boiling fascist tendencies of all Republicans, but that’s a mistake. Had the November election gone differently, very few of the societal wounds that have opened during the 2010s would have closed. Nothing would have been better and a number of things probably worse.
But it was Trump supporters who stormed the Capitol and put our grand democracy at risk, you might say. Yes, but had the election gone only slightly different and the shoe been on the other foot, we would most likely have seen Democratic supporters storming the Capitol, preventing what they saw as an unlawful power grab.
Don’t believe me? According to a number of surveys done by political scientists Nathan Kalmoe and Lilliana Mason well before the November election, a higher proportion of left-wing voters (18%) than right-wing voters (14%) said that violence was justified in case of an unfavorable outcome in the Presidential election in 2020. Even more scary than a fringe for whom violence isn’t a barrier is that much larger shares of partisan crowds view their opponents as “downright evil.”
Considering how much moral fire was received by everyone even remotely connected to the right for the protests in early January, that forces us to scale back our moral condemnation. In an alternate universe where Trump had won, my guess is that we’d be in exactly the same situation, with a uniquely disliked President and an unruly population and a society at odds with itself ‒ and a violent attack on some public institution attempting to reverse the result.
At some point of societal schism, there is no way back. Perhaps we’re not there yet and perhaps we can still mend the wounds of the last few decades. I keep wondering that maybe, just maybe, some part of the extreme right-wing segregationist claims have merit. If it’s unthinkable for you to live alongside someone of the wrong class, sex, religion, race, or political persuasion… perhaps you shouldn’t. Perhaps then, dividing, separating, or even seceding is the only solution.
Ignoring one another is a peaceful way of coexisting; Not interacting is a viable solution unless we’re forced to do so through a one-size-fits-all political process. Playing the political game makes it worse, and the collapse of personal grand narratives have let politics substitute for every other desire we have.
We could decentralize political power, have people self-select into what sort of governance and/or people they wish to live with, and we can peacefully separate instead of violently combat one another. After the year we’ve had ‒ Trump, Trump, Anger, Pandemic, Lockdown, BLM, Election, Coup ‒ does anyone still think that living apart from one another is such a bad idea?