March 5, 2009

The Two Americas

A view of Downtown Seattle (and, beyond that, ...Image via Wikipedia

We have been hearing about the American "culture war" for several years now. The U.S. media loves to talk of "red states" and "blue states," but just how divided is our nation? Is it more accurate to characterize the U.S. as one nation, largely united but with frequently differing opinions, or should we be talking about two Americas? I tend to think that we are far more divided than most Americans realize, but I recognize that the nature of our divide is also far more complex than the media would have us believe.

The American cultural divide is something about which I have frequently posted. I have addressed the implications of the divide for atheists, and I have repeatedly emphasized the media's role in widening the divide. My position has not changed much, although I do find more reason to be optimistic today than I did previously.

Reality Sucks!

A college friend and his wife recently told me about their visit to a science museum in honor of Darwin Day. It was not a formal Darwin Day celebration or anything - just a bunch of people who thought it would be fun to go to the museum to commemorate Darwin's birthday. What my friend did not expect were the angry protesters. While they were waiting in line with others to enter the museum, they were subjected to insults from a group of Christian extremist protesters.

My friend's wife wrote a brief post on her Facebook page about this, noting how surprised she was to encounter this (they live in Seattle, WA). Not unlike something you might find here, she referred to the anti-evolution protesters as "morons." This led one of her friends with whom I am unfamiliar to comment on her post that she was being intolerant, etc. Apparently, it is now intolerant not to want a bunch of creationists hurling insults at you on your way to a museum.

It is 2009, but we actually have people protesting against science. I do not think it is just for show. I think that many of them genuinely believe that science is a threat to their worldview and feel pressed to defend themselves.


I was disappointed when Gore lost to Bush, but I was horrified when Bush beat Kerry. It wasn't that I liked John Kerry (I didn't). What really got under my skin was that Bush had shown himself to be an unfit leader during his first term. I could not comprehend how anyone could possibly vote for him that second time.

I mention this because I can empathize with how those opposed to Obama feel now. Sure, some were die-hard McCain supporters because they believed in McCain. But others simply did not like what they saw from Obama. And now they feel like I did after Kerry's loss.

The difference, and I think it is a big one, is that I do not ever recall wishing that Bush would fail. I realized that a failure on his part would be bad for America. I hoped he would prove me wrong even though I saw this as extremely unlikely. I can completely relate to how the Nobama crowd feels, but I cannot relate to how they hope Obama falls on his face and hurts our country.

Media as Self-Fulfilling Prophecy

The media's need to oversimplify the information they disseminate is understandable. After all, the U.S. education system is in shambles and our entertainment culture has left us with short attention spans. But the oversimplification also contributes to the broader dumbing-down. Why bother to push ourselves when we can count on being fed what we are supposed to think?

The problem is that oversimplification combined with the ratings-driven system yields high conflict punditry masquerading as news. The "news" of today is delivered by yelling windbags who will not hesitate to cut the mic of someone with whom they disagree. Opinions are so frequently interspersed with political talking points that even the intelligent among us can be fooled.

The media has done an excellent job of creating the very sort of simplistic conflict in which they delight. Unfortunately, this has become the new reality in which we live.

Two Americas

There are two Americas today, but the fault line is not always easy to identify. It is not just about religion, for their are many religious people on both sides of the divide. While appealing in its simplicity, the model of red and blue states falls apart when we realize that next-door neighbors all over our country may occupy the different Americas.

I believe that the complex line dividing our two Americas largely boils down to where residents of each America get what they regard as information. Sure, one America watches Fox "News" and listens to Rush Limbaugh, but it is more than that. This America also reads conservative publications, attends socially conservative churches, and spends more time with like-minded individuals. And the other America is doing the same thing in the opposite direction.

It is human nature to prefer the company of like-minded people. We tend to gravitate toward friends who are like us. We also share a well-known cognitive bias for seeking out information which confirms and validates our pre-existing worldviews. The liberal watches Olbermann while the conservative watches O'Reilly.

Welcome to the two Americas.


What about the optimism I mentioned earlier? Regardless of what one thinks of Obama, I think we can all agree that a large part of his campaign centered on setting aside bitter partisan politics and embracing a new sort of politics. My point is not that this was necessarily genuine but that it likely helped him to get elected. This tells me that many Americans are fed up with the divide and interested in exploring an alternative, even one that remains poorly defined. This gives me at least some optimism.

I do not think we can afford to become much more divided than we are now. The future is bleak if we do not find a way out. And yet, I am encouraged to see more people recognizing the problem and at least beginning to talk about it.