The Tragedy of the Two Americas

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The Tragedy of the Two Americas

It may not happen soon, but the deep social fractures must be acknowledged, and then healed, if progress is ever to take hold. (Photo: Brendan Hoffman/Getty Images)

As the world struggles to make sense of the 2016 election, my mind traveled back to two books I read recently: Eddie Glaude’s Democracy in Black: How Race Still Enslaves the American Soul, and Arlie Russell Hochschild’s Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right.

Reading the two books simultaneously, I was immediately struck by this reality: these are two very different communities of people who feel great pain.  For a variety of valid reasons, they both feel like outsiders in what they perceive to be mainstream American culture.

"Resistance is imperative. Yet we also must think strategically."

Glaude’s community of outsiders, of course, also includes people of color generally, along with LGBTQ folks and women, as well as their allies in the white male Left.  Hochschild’s outsiders include much of the white working class and many who live in rural America.  In some respects these two communities are at the heart of the split between so-called “blue” and “red” America.

Despite sharing the pain of being outsiders, however, the two communities are completely isolated from each other.  Not only that, but many in each community probably view the other group as at least indirectly responsible for their pain.

Living with repeated reminders of their pain, both communities are largely cut off from feeling empathy towards the other.  The tragedy of this empathy gap—of the two Americas—is that it not only prevents these communities of people from coming together and understanding that they do have significant common interests, but it also entraps them in a system that perpetuates rather than heals their wounds.

Many factors have contributed to this deep division in our political culture, and much is rooted in the American past.  Most fundamentally, however, we came to the current impasse because our politics, our media, and our economy are all systematically elite-dominated—that they are, in important ways, anti-democratic.

During the 1960s politicians running as Republicans or Independents seized on the racial transformation occurring in the South and especially the frightening images of inner-city rioting to lure the white South and significant numbers of the white working class into the Republican party –shattering the New Deal coalition and beginning the process of what historian Michael Flamm has called the “southernization” of American politics.

As the world’s capitalist economies faced a crisis of declining profitability in the 1970s, corporate elites called for an end to the period of democratic “excess,” meaning the assertive participation by previously marginalized minorities, women, and youth during the 1960s era. 

Political elites in both parties responded in kind. Blaming “big government” for everything, Ronald Reagan’s election began the right wing take-over of the Republican party, and Bill Clinton and other moderate Democrats created the Democratic Leadership Council to move the party into the corporate center.  The era of neoliberalism –of capitalism freed from “intervention” on behalf of us, the public— began.

Repeated again and again over the decades, these dynamics lay the groundwork for Donald Trump’s pitch to one group of outsiders, terrifying the other.  For its part, the Democratic elite were threatened by the outsiders drawn to Bernie Sanders’ campaign and thus worked to ensure the nomination of a deeply flawed, but safely centrist candidate.

The elite corporate media also deserve much of the blame for the tragedy of the two Americas—television most of all, but also the elite press and even the internet that reinforces much our social fragmentation.  Reflecting their elite view of the world, media commentators were highly skeptical if not downright dismissive towards outsider candidates Trump and Sanders. To the very end of the campaign, they failed to take seriously either candidate—or the pain they tapped into.

Yet Sanders’ enthusiastic crowds and fiery rhetoric and Trump’s very outrageousness drew the market-driven media cameras to their campaigns, helping to ignite greater fervor among their followers. Television provided the aura of celebrity-hood that helped to seal Trump’s nomination and election, even as media commentators questioned his candidacy.

One problem with the “news” media is that they are effectively captured by the two dominant forces that compete in our elections.  What’s more, TV news is fundamentally a form of entertainment that revolves around personalities, drama, and conflict. While the two parties exploit our fears and emotions via propaganda, the TV election spectacle is all about the horse race and cheer-for-my-side-hate-the-other-side. We become often-hostile strangers to each other.

People on the left and all who legitimately worry about the planet’s future must join with those who find themselves under attack by this administration and its followers. Resistance is imperative. Yet we also must think strategically. Decades ago, the Right landed on a formula that elevated them to power at the same time that it reinforced the hand of corporate liberals, producing our tragic neoliberal world.

If we are to change that dynamic, it is up to us, the people, to do the work to come together, to hear each other’s anxieties and fears, and share the reasons we view the world the way we do—and then to confront a political system that works hard to prevent this from happening.

"One kind of exploitation elites and their media never address is social class exploitation, most graphically visible in the extraordinary economic inequality in this country."

Real democracy is grounded in human empathy, the sense that other people are human beings like me—they love their children, feel the same kinds of feelings and have similar basic needs, as I do.  Being open to their feelings and experiences, we begin to communicate, to understand each other.  The door to discovering our mutual interests opens.

From the industrial revolution and the Jim Crow South down to the present day, corporate and political elites have long exploited the fears of working class and poor whites that they will be displaced by people of color, thereby cutting them off from empathy for people who have suffered brutal exploitation.

Underneath all the hurt shared by these two communities is an economy that views people, their needs and communities (and, of course, Nature) as things to be exploited.  One kind of exploitation elites and their media never address is social class exploitation, most graphically visible in the extraordinary economic inequality in this country.

Therein lies at least one significant interest shared by the two aggrieved communities—perhaps a starting point for conversation.  If Palestinians and Israelis, or Northern Ireland Catholics and Protestants, interested in reconciliation and understanding can reach across those historic divides, why can’t we?  A great deal is at stake, so let the work begin.

Ted Morgan

Ted Morgan

Ted (Edward P.) Morgan (epm2@lehigh.edu) is Professor of Political Science at Lehigh University and author of the recent What Really Happened to the 1960s: How Mass Media Culture Failed American Democracy (University Press of Kansas).

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