Here is a statistic that says a lot about the state of our divided country. In 1960 less than 5% of Americans said that they would be unhappy if one of their children married someone of the opposite political party. Today 35% of Republicans and 45% of Democrats say it would upset them deeply. Bills fans are more accepting than this if one of their children shows up with a fiancé wearing a Tom Brady jersey.
We are a nation not only more divided but also more hostile to one another across those divisions. We see each other as caricatures. Democrats are radicals who want to throw open the borders, let in everyone who wants to come, and then offer them free health care and housing, and register them to vote. Republicans are zealots who would follow President Trump off a cliff if he asked, gun-toting racists who want to return to the day when most Americans were white and the rest kept quiet.
How did it come to this?
One way is the toxic filters through which we get our news. Until as recently as two decades ago most Americans got their daily dose of national and world events by watching one of the three evening network news programs. Each was basically the same: neutral, nonpartisan, and factual. Editorial comments were rare and were always well-identified as something separate.
Then Fox News arrived on cable and everything changed. While branding itself “Fair and Balanced” it was really anything but that. Created by a Republican operative, Roger Ailes, the network thrived on hate for the Clintons, distaste for President Obama, and a connection to Mr. Trump so direct that several of its on-air personalities also function as his top advisors. Importantly, it did this, not just to reflect the views of its owners, but because partisanship and propaganda proved to be a very lucrative business model. Developing an on-air echo chamber for a core audience of conservatives made Ailes and Fox fabulously wealthy.
CNN took note and has now followed suit, becoming Fox for Trump haters. A network that was once a serious news organization is now, like Fox, all talking heads, propaganda and spin. Again, it’s a business model, partisanship aimed at a core viewership. If you are getting your news from either Fox or CNN what you are getting now is just ranting disguised as news. Then add in the arrival of Facebook and Twitter, two platforms that have transformed political discourse into angry exchanges of stupid memes, most of the time with people you don’t even know.
In 2016 the Russian government and other global adversaries cleverly found a way to pour gasoline onto these fires of national division. They created computer systems (bots) that can create fake news and memes designed to provoke us against one another, and post them from behind masks into even the most innocent forms of social media. Even the administrators of our local Lockportians Facebook group reported earlier this year that the group had been infiltrated by mysterious users in places like Iran (they wisely removed them).
President Trump did not create this national division (it was there before his candidacy) and we can debate all day what role he has played in exploiting it and deepening it. But the point is that it is a dangerous thing for us to continue as a nation so divided, so unable or unwilling to listen to those who have a different view of the world. Fighting with each other and solving our shared problems are not the same thing. And we are a nation with plenty of serious problems to solve.
What can we, as individuals, do about this? First, if you are getting all your news from one source with one bias, look more broadly. The phone in your hand can bring you solid news from multiple sources in ways not even Walter Cronkite imagined. Second, don’t become a tool of the Russian government or anyone else by reposting stupid memes to social media and don’t bother engaging the people who do. For all you know that ‘idiot’ you are arguing with is just a Russian algorithm.
Third and most importantly, we have to stop taking democracy for granted and actually pay attention beyond the boundaries of our own lives, especially right here in Lockport. The winner of every local election here is always the same – apathy. By huge majorities what most voters do on Election Day is stay home. Democracy is not a spectator sport. Even when I disagree with them, I still have great respect for the women and men who run for local office, and for the many others who have stepped up to serve on local commissions and committees.
Finally, find someone that you disagree with on an issue – on guns, immigration, Trump, climate change, anything – and listen to them. None of us have a monopoly on political truth. I learn things every day from people with whom I disagree on politics. Dividing up into our comfort zones, or having no political views at all, makes our nation weaker not stronger.
“One nation indivisible.” That’s the line we recited every day in school with the Pledge of Allegiance. But it’s not enough to say it. We also have to mean it.
Jim Shultz is the founder and executive director of the Democracy Center and a father and grandfather in Lockport. He can be reached by email at: email@example.com.