With the loss of Senator Olympia Snowe, the United States Congress continues to bleed moderates, even as Republican presidential hopefuls ramp up the language of division, in their attempts to unite the party behind the narrowest message possible. With the passing of time, we’re becoming more polarized, not less. Maybe we should talk about why.
Especially in the culture war era, many of our disagreements stem from a lack of understanding, and preconceptions about what it means to be liberal or conservative, northern or southern. Both sides of the aisle are equally guilty of building up the narrative of “difference”; take Senator Hatch’s recent, senseless dig against (I think) Brooklyn, or Obama’s unequivocally tone-deaf comment about southerners “clinging” to guns and religion. Similarly, I’ve traveled in enough liberal circles to hear honestly-felt redneck and “flyover” jokes, and enough conservative circles to hear honestly-felt suspicion about anyone who lives in New York City. I’ve also seen homophobes from small-towns become passionately pro-gay rights after actually meeting someone who is gay, and northerners give up their suspicion of the South after living there and getting to know the people (I’ve walked the latter path myself).
This is to say, the surest antidote to sociocultural biases is shared experiences. We’re not actually as different as partisan leaders would make us out to be (as the Republican Party’s losing gamble on contraception seems to prove). Bridging the cultural divide may be as easy as building a mechanism that brings us closer together, by confronting us with that central truth. A few novel ideas, then:
- High-speed rail: a population is its transportation network. Rome was its roads, the Hegemony was the farcasters, and the greater New York City area is essentially a creation of the rail companies that serve it. The LIRR and MetroNorth create the suburbs of Westchester and Long Island, enabling New Yorkers to live in one area while working in another, and forging a larger community in the process. The farther out those connections radiate, the stronger they bind the periphery to the center, changing both center and periphery along the way. Massive infrastructure investment and its attendant benefits are far from foreign concepts to Americans — Eisenhower’s interstate system allowed Americans to explore far-flung parts of the country, and essentially spawned the idea of middle-class tourism. Similarly, true national high-speed rail would enable us to live in distant parts of the country, and so put an end to a politics where Southerners can rail against Northerners (or vice versa) based on myths, rather than actual experience.
- Internal exchange programs: as countries go, especially compared to Europe, the United States is huge, and remarkably diverse. The same notion that justifies foreign exchange programs — a single person, with knowledge of far-flung locales, can communicate respect and understanding to his home on return — could animate an American exchange program, where talented high school students receive scholarships to study “abroad” in California from Texas; in Atlanta from New York; in Iowa from Baltimore; etcetera. Such programs would surely draw upon private (rather than public) financing, but ideally, accomplish a real public service.
One side of the aisle disproportionately gets away with setting us against ourselves; they’ve practically built campaigns on it. But both sides are wrong to engage in the politics of social division. If we’re going to raise the level of public discourse in this country, we should start — not end — by appreciating where each of us is coming from, and spreading that message in our communities.