Note: As this was heavily edited down from a post three times the size, I’ll issue another post greatly expanding on this one.
On January 8, 2011, 22-year-old Jared Lee Loughner shot US Representative Gabrielle Giffords in the head during a meeting she was holding with constituents near Tucson, Arizona. Although Loughner was a mentally disturbed man who held extreme views on all sides of the political spectrum and paid more attention to conspiracy theories than anything that could be called “news”, the shooting came as a shock to a country deeply divided between left and right. Attention turned to a map made by former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin in the lead-up to the 2010 midterm elections showing candidates in vulnerable districts targeted by crosshairs.
People on both sides called for bipartisanship, civility, and toning down the political discourse, and later that month at the State of the Union Address, congressmen of both houses sat in the chamber regardless of political affiliation, breaking with tradition. Even Keith Olbermann, who arguably was one of the standardbearers of the division of the political discourse on the left, apologized for anything he may have ever said that might have been construed as supporting violence. Later that month, Olbermann’s MSNBC show, Countdown with Keith Olbermann, was abruptly cancelled.
Did anything result from all the calls for bipartisanship? Not really. Other than Olbermann, the same figures are the most public representatives of left and right, and I see no evidence any of them have changed their MO. Radio host Laura Ingraham recently expressly rejected another call for unity from President Obama, and another radio host, Mike Malloy, suggested that the Navy SEAL team that took out Osama bin Laden should have taken out George W. Bush instead. And I found these incidents from, respectively, Media Matters for America, which had a column calling Obama’s haters “deranged“, and Newsbusters, which called one recent claim of radio host Randi Rhodes “lunacy“. Even Keith Olbermann will restart Countdown on Current TV next month – and it’s worth noting that the breakup with MSNBC may have been in the works ever since Olbermann was suspended the previous November for donating to Democratic congressional candidates.
In my view, the left seemed more self-aware about their sins than the right. While Olbermann fell on his sword, no comparable conservative figure shared the same fate that I know of (with Glenn Beck’s Fox News program only being cancelled in April). While Olbermann apologized for any perceived sins, Palin – from whom one could have drawn a more direct line to the shootings in Tucson – refused to take any responsibility and instead attacked the media for allegedly jumping to blame the right for the attacks. In the end, the left’s reluctance to play the same game as the right only came out as a win for the right – one side pulls the conversation as far right as they want, but the other side is too reluctant to do likewise. I’d like to think it wouldn’t take a conservative figure being shot to shock the right out of their complacency, but I’m not sure if even that would work. But if an assassination attempt can’t bring “red America” and “blue America” together, what can?
Tribalism is a natural result of the human experience. We like to think that we’ve risen above tribalism, but we merely live in bigger tribes today, and smaller sub-tribes among them. One of the most important aspects of any group of people are the moral precepts and core beliefs holding the tribe together. These core principles are at the heart of the tribe’s identity; they allow its members to identify other members of the tribe, beyond those they personally know, and they serve a more practical purpose in keeping the tribe together by creating social controls against those who undermine the rest of the tribe. These controls, and the principles themselves, can have nasty consequences. Anyone who disagrees with a group’s core principles will not remain a member of that group for long.
So it is that our two great political persuasions have purged themselves of heretics and seek complete purity. The other side is pure evil; it is the enemy; to even consider it for a moment is to introduce an impurity. When these core beliefs are held in unanimity, they can be self-reinforcing, and as such they are often deeply held, thought to be self-evident, so now the enemy becomes stupid too, if not outright liars; after all, aren’t our positions so obviously right? At this point, they have become fundamentally religious beliefs, so deeply held that those who hold them cannot make any decisions, cannot even function, if they find themselves forced to throw them out.
In the case of our two great political persuasions, it is thought that the course of action most in accordance with these core beliefs is always in the best interests of America, in every situation and on every issue, regardless of whether or not it contradicts other beliefs they claim to be just as core; to claim otherwise is an absurdity, a heresy. Regardless of what they may claim their principles to be, both parties will sacrifice their principles to support their true clientele. Republicans will always seek the best result for corporations, while I suspect there is some truth to the Republican cariacture of Democrats as not-so-closet socialists.
To make matters worse, the media – Fox News, MSNBC, and major radio companies such as Clear Channel, but all the media to some extent – have gleefully exploited and furthered the political divide. By providing mass outlets for those who would drive each party further into the fringes, they further legitimize such extreme positions and in fact make the likes of Rush Limbaugh and Keith Olbermann instantly mainstream. That it is eminently understandable (outrageous positions attract attention and ratings) does not make it any less shameful.
The media are responsible for the divide, and they have a responsibility to put that divide back together. In previous posts I’ve mentioned my frustration with CNN for trying to stand in the middle rather than on both edges, and specifically that letting Jon Stewart shame them into cancelling Crossfire was a mistake. But while that’s still important, I now suspect it’s doomed to failure without more sweeping changes, because the divide is now being driven by forces outside the media, and there’s probably no convincing Fox News to stop furthering the divide.
I don’t know anymore how to really begin healing the divide, or even stopping its growth. It will take a humanization of the enemy – a realization that there are real people who are persuaded by the other side, and they aren’t all misled or delusional – a recognition that we are all Americans who have to live with the people and ideas of the other side; a recognition that politics is not some sort of zero-sum game where the only goal is to “win” but something with real consequences; a sober assessment of our values, what they mean, why they’re desirable, and when they can be too much of a good thing; and above all, it will require a recognition that the partisan gridlock now afflicting Congress – a natural reflection, and microcosm, of the division of the country – is preventing us from moving forward.
I’m not sure if either side really wants to do any of this, and I’m not sure how to get them to – our political persuasions are so entrenched it seems impossible to pull them out of the trenches. But something needs to be done… or else I fear the shots that were fired near Tucson will prove to be the first shots of a new civil war.