Opinion | Morgan Liddick: Ugly emotions cloud our political reason
Historian Francis Fukuyama argued in a 1996 book that interpersonal trust was essential to the informal business structures that undergird much of America’s rise to world power and unparalleled prosperity. Businessmen striking agreements in America — and a few other countries — could, even absent family or other personal ties, rely on their partners to do as they said they would in pursuit of a common interest. Since such an ability is rare throughout the world, it confers enormous competitive advantage to those who possess it.
Our form of government depends on similar forms of trust, and always has. The men who gathered in Philadelphia on that fateful summer of 1776 to make war on the most powerful state the world had ever known had dissimilar interests and motives; many didn’t even like one another. But they had common purpose and they trusted that their fellows, knaves though they may have been, would hold to it when things got dicey. For the most part, they were right.
Similarly, when another group later sought to make a nation, they held very different views on nearly every important topic in the Constitutional convention. But each trusted the other to put sectional or personal interests aside when the fate of the United States was at stake. For the most part, they did.
It’s doubtful we could accomplish these same magnificent feats today; they require forbearance and trust, and we are scraping the bottom of the reservoir of both.
We’ve seen this at least three times before: First during the War of 1812, when the Federalist-heavy northeastern states plotted to leave the union. Second in 1861, when the Democrat-heavy South did leave. And in the 1970s, when an unpopular, costly war and a brittle, flawed president coincided to smash the peoples’ trust in their government in ways we still feel.
But today’s divisions seem different. They are quicker, fed by a mercurial social media which allows neither nuance nor reflection. They are Manichean: As in 1861, one is either totally one thing, or completely the other. And ominously, they fall on audiences unprepared by education or experience for reflection or analysis. In these circumstances one may as likely expect fatal damage as reconciliation.
Politicians fan the flames when they accuse their opponents of things like “declaring war on the elderly.” Hyperbolic mischaracterization may enflame a rabid base, but no rational citizen thinks that political leaders want to kill granny. They also raise the level of mistrust when they engage in corrupt bargains within their own parties or demand ever more to accomplish goals: “To do thus, we need the House… the Senate… the White House…” will eventually provoke the question, “Now that you have them, when can we expect action?” Any answer involving “later” will provoke cold fury at the ballot box.
Media shares the blame. They could embrace a previous role as impartial arbitrators of fact, but it seems most major outlets have instead chosen to color their coverage according to a political agenda, appealing to one faction, alienating another and widening the gulf between the two.
This is dangerous and should stop. But that requires restraint, reason and fact — no longer popular actors in our drama. For too long America’s children have been taught to emote, not think. For too long we have all been told that the individual is the highest and best center of all things. That the individual must have what they desire regardless of cost. That the individual has the right to behave as they wish, regardless of harm done to others thereby. That each of us has the most perfect ideas, which must be given deference despite our inability to express or defend them. And that anyone taking exception to these is a charlatan, a fool or a monster — or probably all three.
These attitudes are corrosive to rational discussion, but they persist because they are useful to a political class which knows a divided and contentious population is easier to rule. They end in the chaotic hell that was Bosnia, Lebanon, Somalia; where those with different opinions are not men, but demons; not fellow citizens with different ideas about goals and principles, but the spawn of Satan. Where lies, distortion and hypocrisy make careful consideration of other voices useless. We must decide if that is a place we wish to go.
If not, we must stop acting as if it is, and quickly. It’s not yet too late, but it’s close.
Morgan Liddick writes a weekly column for the Summit Daily News.
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