The Divided States of America
*Originally published in 2020.
The divide. The split. The tribalism. The partisanship.
We hear about it everywhere.
You don’t have to be a policy wonk to feel like you can’t escape the implication that there is division in the United States everywhere. That we are more the Divided States of America. And further, there is nothing anyone can do about it.
How Did We Get Here?
Last week, Rush Limbaugh, conservative radio talk show host who has been on the airwaves for the past 30 years, was honored with the highest civilian honor our country bestows.
Limbaugh has spent his career stoking the divisions that now permeate our conversations. In an NPR interview in 2009, Limbaugh said,
"Getting along is not the objective. When it comes to the war on terror, when it comes to tax policy, to me, defeating, politically, people I disagree with is the order of the day, and I don't think I defeat them by compromising with them," he says.
The words ‘defeat’ and ‘compromise’ define the world of politics today.
The Purpose of Government
Government is meant to be a force for good. It is meant to protect and serve the people from which it derives all power. The People grant the government (local, state, Federal) the power to do things individuals cannot--pass and enforce laws, build public schools, create a shared infrastructure, provide a social safety net for those who need it, and other ‘big’ jobs that one family or even group of families wouldn’t be able to accomplish.
A government as big as it needs to be to perform its functions and small enough to ensure the People’s freedoms must serve ALL of the People.
It must serve the rich and the poor, the young and the old, business owners and workers. It must represent the best interests of all of them.
And how is that accomplished?
No one gets everything they want. Because there are always going to be people who need the opposite. And everyone is supposed to be equal under the law, be equally represented in government, and get equitable benefits from being a taxpayer and a citizen.
When there is no compromise, when there is only one guiding ideology, when politicians take their election as a mandate to enact all of their own views, the government is broken. It is compromised itself.
Compromise? Or Compromised?
Compromise is a word that spans two definitions--seemingly in opposition to each other:
Similar words include “agreement, understanding, settlement, terms, accommodation, deal, trade-off, bargain, middle ground, middle course, happy medium, balance”.
But dig a little deeper into the definition, and you find this:
“the acceptance of standards that are lower than is desirable.”
“to expose or make vulnerable to danger, suspicion, scandal, etc.; jeopardize.”
“to make a dishonorable or shameful concession.”
Is this how ‘compromise’ is used as the opposite of ‘win-win’ and ‘accomplishment’? To compromise (mutual concession) is to compromise (expose to danger)? Giving a little is giving too much? Giving at all is losing?
Compromise = defeat.
And there you have it. The Rush Limbaugh theory of political engagement. You compromise, you lose.
Ideology as Sport
No one in public life is allowed to make mistakes anymore. They aren’t allowed to be human; to live and grow. They are supposed to emerge into the spotlight fully formed.
You were great last season, but your average is down. You spend too much time with your wife; you are out of shape. The soap opera of sports rumbles along on ESPN and its affiliates.
Sports don't have the impact on people’s everyday lives that government and politics do. People might spend more time watching, reading about, and discussing sports, but it still is just a hobby.
Political ideology, on the other hand, is a bloodsport.
When the ideology of ‘win at any cost’ takes over public office, people lose. And they lose in vast numbers, for many generations, sometimes with their literal lives. Healthcare that is financially out of reach, gun violence that is out of control, an economy that doesn’t work for all--these are the harbingers of the ideology bloodsport.
Law becomes meaningless. Facts become debatable. Truth becomes obsession. Winning is everything.
Owning the opponent is the only acceptable outcome. And anyone who disagrees is cast out. See the Senate Impeachment trial of Donald J Trump.
For over thirty years, Rush Limbaugh, and those like him, have poured this bloodsport into the public sphere as a reality show that is all too real--making money in the background through advertisers as more and more listeners tuned in.
He was not interested in solving anyone’s problems, providing any safety or protection to anyone, nor moving the dialog toward a compromise. He wanted the dialog to stay as far apart as possible, so the spectacle of the argument remained profitable.
It’s time to set down new rules for the sport. Redefine winning. Bring in new players. And move back to the definition of compromise synonymous with win-win. Then we can shed the divided title from our public persona and once again embrace the commonality of this Great Experiment called the United States of America.