Today’s acrimony is nothing new. The intensity of it feels new, but the United States, roughly 160 years ago, was so divided that it fought the U.S. Civil War. While we have strayed into some intensely dangerous territory, not least of which was the attempted takeover of the U.S. Capitol by Trump supporters, but we remain, overwhelmingly, inclined toward peaceful means.
This shouldn’t come as a surprise. The majority of people in the country, on a person-to-person basis, are inclined toward peaceful coexistence. In one of the most bizarre cases of this being true, Rich Benjamin, a Black journalist, speaker and writer, shared his stories from traveling to the whitest places in America. From his TED talk:
Abe, an Aryan, sidled up next to me. He slapped my knee and he said, ‘Hey Rich, I just want you to know one thing. We are not white supremacists. We are white seperatists. We don’t think we’re better than you, we just want to be away from you.’
On a person-to-person level, a member of the Aryan Nation, an anti-semitic, neo-Nazi, racist organization, even having physical contact and trying to engage in friendly banter with a Black man is so perversely hopeful it’s hard to put into words.
Yet here we are. Where racism, sexism, anger, violence, profligate unchecked. They’re easier to find and engage in than ever. They make our differences feel so stark. Why is it that membership is growing in these groups? Well, they’re easier to find online, easier to join a community, easier to feel at home in a digital world when a physical one isn’t meeting a need.
But, overall, the truth is that America isn’t as divided as it seems. Our Democrat and Republican members often push toward the middle of an already centrist system. There are very, very extremists in America. But they do exist. From this New York Times article, “A 2016 survey of 18- to 29-year-olds by Harvard’s Institute of Politics found that 16 percent identified as socialists, while 33 percent supported socialism.”
They attract outsized influence because, like the Proud Boys or the Trump supporters who were willing to storm the U.S. Capitol, they are loud and the media, especially, struggled at not paying attention to minority voices.
So if the majority of the country, let’s say 80 percent or so, are moderates with shades of differences, why would it matter if one considers him- or herself a conservative or a progressive? Well, it’s about hope.
More than other expressions, political viewpoints are a manifestation of the soul’s response to external circumstance. It’s a framing of events. It’s a mental model. It’s how someone processes the circumstances of the world. It’s natural, and it’s the reason why two people will always view an event (any event) in different ways.
I believe the basis of this difference comes from a perspective on time. Progressives, positivists, look to the future, sometimes with fear, to dictate decisions on their present. Conservatives, humanists, look to the past, often with nostalgia, to decide their present.
For those of us who began without much, we still have tomorrow. The promise of tomorrow, the ability to recreate, to reimagine, to rebuild, to become our dreams.
When your past is full of pain or heartache, how else could you live than to become a progressive? To seek change and champion hope?
Of course, I’m oversimplifying. In truth, humans aren’t binary, as much as any politician would like for them to be. Our pasts hold experiences we want to remember and those we want to forget. Our futures contain moments we want to avoid, and surprises that inspire meaning. Meditation on that is satisfying and gratifying.
But that’s not what politics is. Rather, politics is an attempt to establish rules that benefit the maximum number of people in society. Sometimes that means leaving things alone, and occasionally it demands that we do more.