April 24, 2019

What Happened to America? How We Became a Divided Nation and How We Can Move Forward

We Americans are furious. We are fed up. We are enraged and outraged. We vent our wrath on Facebook and Twitter against those who have the nerve to disagree with us, and we avoid even the most casual of social encounters with people who voted for the other candidate.

But we also know that underneath almost every angry person is a frightened person. If we move past the anger to instead consider the frightened American voter and where their fears come from, we can move closer to addressing the unhappiness and divisiveness that has roiled our politics, our public discourse and even our personal relationships.

Politics does not exist in a vacuum. It is a reflection — and often an exaggeration — of society. Shrewd campaign strategists in both major parties have watched us for years as we have become more wary and more suspicious of each other. They have learned how to exploit our tribal instincts and to leverage our alienation for their partisan advantage. But in 2016, the politics of fear broke through to a new level.

The Politics of Fear
In the last presidential election, two unusual candidates — Donald Trump from the right and Bernie Sanders from the left — decided that they could benefit from stoking the fears of voters rather than calming them. Both understood something that more traditional candidates like Jeb Bush and Hillary Clinton did not: A significant number of Americans no longer trusted the reassurances politicians had always offered. Instead, many of us wanted our leaders to indulge our passions and help us identify scapegoats who we could then blame for our problems.

“What’s wrong with America? Nothing that less fearmongering and more confidence and courage can’t solve.”

Trump and Sanders both obliged, targeting their messages at two different groups of frightened voters. But both men recognized the same source of these fears: a society that was struggling with the most dramatic economic and technological upheaval since the Industrial Revolution. Just as the transition from agriculture to industry in the early 20th century roiled the American psyche at that time, the current transformation from an economy heavily reliant on manufacturing to one dependent on rapidly changing technology was having a similar impact. Both shifts were profoundly disruptive to a workforce that had been trained to succeed under the former system but was left deeply disoriented by changes for which it was unprepared. Both shifts exposed the worst fears of workers who felt left behind.

Working-Class White Men
Trump focused his efforts on an older generation of blue-collar workers. Many female and minority voters were put off by Trump’s messaging on social and cultural matters, but white working-class men made up the core of his support base from the first days of his candidacy. These men were told many years ago that they did not need a college education to achieve professional success and economic stability. They learned that working on an assembly line or a factory floor or a construction site might not allow them to get rich, but they could certainly purchase their own home, provide for their children and save enough for a comfortable retirement.

Millions of working-class Americans did everything they thought they were supposed to do to hold up their end of the bargain. They went to work each day, became active in their communities, and provided the structure and support for their children’s future achievements. What they did not foresee was how the world’s economy was preparing to abandon them. 

One hundred years earlier, workers whose livelihoods had depended on agriculture understood how to navigate the Industrial Revolution. They moved from their family farms to cities where they could get jobs in factories. It might have been a difficult transition but at least it was a straightforward one. In 2019, however, laid-off factory workers know they are not going to move to Silicon Valley and acquire venture-fund financing for a social-networking startup. The very best they can hope for is a short-term job-training program that teaches the most rudimentary skills of computer repair or data entry. The worst is represented by growing rates of opioid dependency, homelessness and suicide in the nation’s Rust Belt. Not surprisingly, workers are frightened by a future that doesn’t seem to have room for them — a fear Trump masterfully exploited.

Disaffected Millennials
On the other end of the political spectrum, Sanders reached out to another, equally frightened voter group — disaffected young people.

Like working-class white men, young people of the millennial generation have been struggling to do everything asked of them. In the 21st century, getting into increasingly expensive colleges doesn’t just require good high-school grades and strong test scores, but an array of extracurricular and volunteer activities, as well. As they rise through the educational system, the pressure intensifies. Most successful college students know that succeeding academically is no longer sufficient to guarantee them a well-paying job, so they pursue internships, externships and fellowships with preternatural focus and determination. 

Unfortunately, they happened to graduate from college during the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression, or during its uneven and unsatisfying aftermath.

Sanders appealed to their fears with tremendous effectiveness, convincing these young people that he was the one candidate who was willing to pay attention to them. Most of his young supporters understood that his promise of free college was unlikely to happen, just as most of the working-class Trump voters knew that his pledge to build a wall at the U.S.-Mexico border would never be fulfilled. But unlike the establishment politicians of both parties, at least these two men were responding to their fears and worries. 

The unemployed 50-something factory worker and the underemployed 20-something barista may have expressed their fears in different ways, but both felt cheated by an economic system that shortchanged them and a political system that ignored them. Both groups felt like they were being denied their piece of the American dream and didn’t understand why no one seemed to care. Trump and Sanders not only validated their fears but provided handy targets to blame. Demonizing someone — whether immigrants or bankers — was cathartic and energizing for them. And it was good politics for the two candidates.

Fear on the World Stage
Just as children and voters run away from things that frighten them, countries also retreat from scary things. America’s current retreat into isolationism is in line with a century of historical trends. After both World Wars and the wars in Korea, Vietnam and Iraq, our exhausted and depleted nation turned inward. After every significant economic downturn, American voters decided to prioritize domestic concerns over foreign engagements. It should be no surprise that after more than a decade in Afghanistan and in the years since the economic meltdown of 2008, Americans simply want the rest of the world to leave us alone for a while. We never seem to learn the consequences of that disengagement, a lesson that is again becoming painfully apparent.

For many years, the Republican and Democratic parties’ attitudes toward international disengagement have manifested themselves in markedly different ways. Republicans expressed their concerns through a reluctance to promote a more welcoming immigration policy, while the Democrats’ wariness could be seen in their antipathy toward expanded free trade. Trump demonstrated his political savvy by being the first major political figure in recent history to strenuously oppose this country’s bridge-building efforts on both policy fronts rather than one or the other. Regardless of the outcome of his current debate with Congress over border security, he became our nation’s Wallbuilder in Chief long ago.

The fears that motivated such nationalism and isolationism are not unique to this country. The recent “Yellow Vest” protests in France, the rise of reactionary populist movements throughout Europe and the ongoing debate over Brexit in Great Britain provide ample evidence of the global nature of this challenge. But for the last several decades, the United States has played a unique role in maintaining and strengthening the international architecture on which the varying interests of individual countries could be balanced. 

For more than 40 years after the end of World War II, the world’s security, economic and diplomatic landscape was shaped by a bipolar leadership structure headed by the United States and the Soviet Union. After the end of the Cold War, the United States stood as the unchallenged organizer of an international infrastructure. But the current multipolar setup, with a growing number of aggressive global players, is an arrangement that has historically led to precarious provocations, chaos or widespread violence. Concerns of increasingly tense Middle East discord, of a resurgent Russia and an increasingly aggressive China continue to fester. Fears of international economic, military or environmental catastrophe will not be diminished without a more assertive and consistent U.S. presence on the world stage. But taking on such scary international demands requires that we as a nation present a more unified front to a global audience. Which means we must first confront our fears here at home. 

How Fear Spreads
Fear is contagious. Over the last two years, the ranks of frightened Americans have continued to grow. The two specific demographic groups that animated the 2016 campaign have been joined by much larger numbers of voters on both sides of the aisle. On one side are those who fear that — because of their gender, race, ethnicity or immigration status — they are being deprived of their rightful opportunity to share in the American dream. On the other side are those, just as frightened, who worry that they are having their share of that same American dream taken from them as the nation’s economy and culture change in ways they do not understand. The resulting animosity between those who hate Trump and those who hate those who hate Trump causes the surface anger and the fear underneath it to cascade. 

The challenge for our country’s political leaders is to explain to both groups of frightened people that the American dream is not a zero-sum game, that when some among us realize that dream, they do not prevent others from that same achievement. Rather, they increase its likelihood for all. But bringing people to understand such a reality requires a unifying message that is more challenging and complicated to communicate than it is to create bogeymen and stoke fears of the unknown.

“The percentage of Americans who would refuse to marry someone of a different race or religion is at an all-time low. On the other hand, the percentage of Americans who would refuse to date someone of the opposing political party is at an all-time high.”

How Fear Stops
Throughout history, our best leaders have made that extra effort. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt famously outlined the “Four Freedoms” to which we are all entitled: freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from want and freedom from fear. Unstated but implied in his speech was that each of those freedoms is most secure when we rally together to protect them on behalf of others who are the most vulnerable to losing them. Such a view puts an added obligation on those of us who are most able: We must stand with those who are most fearful.

What frightened people fear most are people different than them. Our society has made tremendous progress on this front, as public-opinion research has shown that the percentage of Americans who would refuse to marry someone of a different race or religion is at an all-time low. On the other hand, the percentage of Americans who would refuse to date someone of the opposing political party is at an all-time high.

Certainly, we have a long way to go. We’re getting better at overcoming our fears of people who don’t look like us or talk like us, but we’re becoming much less accepting of people who don’t think like us or vote like us. We are trading one form of intolerance — and fear — for another.

Looking Harder for Common Ground
Ronald Reagan preached the value of cooperation by saying, “The person who agrees with you 80 percent of the time is a friend and an ally.” The next step forward from Reagan’s quote would be to consider that someone who disagrees with you 80 percent of the time is still someone you can work with 20 percent of the time. But it requires a lot more work to find that 20 percent. It’s much easier to simply vilify them for those matters on which you disagree and add to the animosity and anger.

Tribalization is tempting, but rising above it is often worth the trouble. The time and effort expended in finding common ground not only may lead to substantive agreement and forward progress, but it may make the other person a little less frightening. Recognizing the humanity of someone who wants the same things for their children that you want for yours — even if they disagree with you on which political party is better equipped to deliver those things — is a small step toward tolerance and away from fear. Maybe we can remember that the person with whom we disagree isn’t someone to be hated, but rather someone with whom we can try to find even some small agreement.

The most important part of communication, of course, is listening. As a first step, exposing ourselves to the writing and thinking of smart people on the other side of the divide can help us understand that not everyone with whom we disagree is stupid or evil. Our goal should be to find intelligent thinkers who have different ideas than ours about how to take on our community’s most pressing challenges, listen to them rather than lecture them, and ask them questions rather than hurl insults at them.

And no fair seeking out the screamers and the polemicists on the other side. Pretending to engage with an avowed hate-monger is just an excuse to reinforce our own beliefs, congratulate ourselves for being so much more enlightened that our adversaries, and build the ideological and partisan walls even higher. There are smart people who come to different conclusions than we do. We owe it to ourselves to find them — and to hear them. Then after we have listened to them, the most productive response is to ask questions rather than hurl insults.

(Be warned: This approach requires a high level of intellectual courage, as well as plenty of self-confidence to defend our ideas and entertain the possibility that others might have good ideas, too. It’s also good to have ample quantities of humility.)

On the last day of every semester in the college classes I teach, I give my students one final assignment. Although I cannot grade it, I tell them the assignment will be the most important they receive over the entire course. I ask every conservative in the class to watch Rachel Maddow once a week and I encourage every liberal to read George Will or Bret Stephens with the same frequency. The goal isn’t to change anyone’s mind, just to open it.

“Maybe we can remember that the person with whom we disagree isn’t someone to be hated, but rather someone with whom we can try to find even some small agreement.”

What’s Right With America
In his first inaugural address, Bill Clinton offered a thought that can still help us with this current challenge. “There is nothing wrong with America,” he said, “that cannot be cured with what is right in America.” 

What’s right with America has always been collaboration and cooperation and the extra effort needed to overcome disagreements to work toward common goals. What’s right with America are Americans who understand that fearing those who are different just gets in the way of recognizing that the diversity of those differences is what has always allowed our country to succeed.

What’s right with America is building bridges, but the whole point of a bridge is to connect things that otherwise would be separated. This type of construction requires reaching out across obvious demographic and ideological dividing lines to overcome fears and work toward achievable, admirable goals. 

What’s wrong with America? Nothing that less fearmongering and more confidence and courage can’t solve. The question is whether we sit around waiting and hoping for the politicians to make that transformation, or whether we take the lead and show them that while fear may be an effective short-term political strategy for them, it is going to get in our way as we work toward putting our country back on track.

Talking to those with whom we disagree — and listening to them — may seem like an outdated concept. Certainly, advances in communications technology make it easier than ever to avoid them. But maybe it’s worth the effort, if only to replace fear with trust.


Dan Schnur teaches political communications and leadership at USC, UC Berkeley and Pepperdine. He is the founder of the USC-L.A. Times statewide political survey and a board member of the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust.