Is “The Great Divide” in America Actually…Healthy?

I wrote this piece while traveling in South Korea with my fiance as a most unusual and disconcerting general election looms in the United States. I include it here under the category “Paradigm Shift”, as my experiences traveling in Korea provided the spark for the inquiry that follows.

Exhibit A: People in Korea stare at Jenna and I constantly as we walk around. Not unexpected, as we (well, one of us) look different and are occasionally carrying 40-pound backpacks; nonetheless, this points to the way people effortlessly pick someone who is ‘other’ out of a crowd.

Exhibit B: A man sitting next to us on the the subway moved seats when he realized Jenna and I were together. A little disconcerting, but again, not that big a deal. However, this does highlight the prejudice that exists in Korean society against interracial relationships.

Exhibit C: A woman sneered and muttered discontent at us on street. At the time, I chalked it up to what I thought was probable mental illness. And this may be accurate. She may have been off her rocker…she certainly acted like it from my perspective. But that’s only my perspective…and I’m not a 60 year old Korean lady from Daejeon.

Although these aren’t the worst things that could happen (I mean, we weren’t getting beat up or anything), we were, at times, made to feel quite uncomfortable. And this isn’t to say that we didn’t also find plenty of exceptions to the racism noted above. A great many local strangers went out of their way to be patient with us and guide our wanderings and wonderings. Yet, after encountering the prejudice entrenched in this still very conservative culture, I couldn’t help but compare it to my own. How about Americans? Are we just as intolerant of outsiders, of “others”? I began to question my own country, but instead of thinking in terms of xenophobia, I wanted to consider the enmity shared by two very ideologically disparate groups of people.

These days, it seems that if most Americans were asked to describe the ideological or political makeup of their country they might say, “Well, half the people are liberal (or conservative, if that’s to whom you are speaking) and the other half are a bunch of idiots.” The divides that exist in American society today seem as vast and distinct as they’ve ever been. To many, including myself, this seems, on its surface, an awful predicamental corner into which we’ve painted ourselves. And, in a way, it is. But in another way, as I’ll try to explain below, it isn’t.

In Korea, I was connected with two kind-hearted, and lucky for me, talkative people – Ilhom and Slava. Our conversations touched on things from work, to money, to family, eventually landing on the topic of politics. When I asked them about the governments in their native Uzbekistan, its neighbor to the north, Russia, and South Korea, the country in which they now live, they both said the same thing about all those countries. Each operates under a multiparty “democracy.” They went on to say that despite these countries’ claims to free and fair elections, the electoral process in each is deeply flawed and the legislative burden/privilege isn’t equitably shared between numerous parties. Rather, in all of these cases – a developing country, a fallen superpower, and a fairly average developed nation – a single party dominates politics, develops policy, and carries out law and order.¹

The systems I’ve described above are in stark contrast to the two-party system that has prevailed in America, virtually since its founding 240 years ago. Ours is a process by which power is transferred back and forth in a remarkably civil way between the Republican and Democratic parties and between two contrasting ideologies: conservative and liberal. However, lately, escalating acrimony between the two sides has caused what many consider to be an unacceptable level of dysfunction within the political system. Particularly this year, when unfavorable ratings of the major party candidates is high and malaise about the direction of the country higher, more than a few people feel like the existing two-party aspect of our politics is “broken,” or otherwise objectionable. Having just heard about the realities of multi-party systems around the rest of the world, I wondered: Is this discontent in our two-party system warranted?

For the longest time, as a liberal, I saw those standing on the other side of the ideological riverbank as people who were slower to accept and adapt to the changing times in which we live. At some levels, I even thought conservatives to be overly selfish on issues central to their creed, such as taxes and guns. (You really don’t want to pay any taxes on those dividends you’re “earning,” but complain that I’m not providing your kids the kind of education they deserve? And the more people who have assault rifles, the safer we’ll all be? You have to be freaking kidding me.) I know those issues shouldn’t be condensed down to such rigid and combative talking points, but all too often they are. And the reason we do it: to provide a subconscious buttress to the positions that our side takes, not because those boilerplate statements are a good way to make positive changes on these contentious issues. Because of my values (largely as result of the situation into which I was born: family, culture, genes), I hoped that the country would move in a more progressive direction, focusing more attention on improving education, protecting the environment, and working with other countries around the world that need our help. Never did I think that those on the other side of that proverbial chasm could play a critical role in making progress on those fronts, because I thought those were issues that just didn’t matter much to them. That is, until I read Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion.

Haidt is a self-described liberal, but he forwards the thesis that conservatives have a broader set of values. He cites his own research and that of his contemporaries to show that those on the left find the values of care/harm, liberty/oppression, and fairness/cheating of paramount importance. Conservatives, in their own right, share those same ideals, if not quite as ardently, while adding to their moral repertoire the values of loyalty/betrayal, authority/subversion and sanctity/degradation. With some caveats, this estimation feels about right to me.

Although I’m speaking in generalities – rarely a game of accuracy – liberals are more inclined to help the downtrodden (care+), fight against oppression by those in power (liberty+), and strive for equality (fairness+). But they also often fight for those who are not like them (loyalty-), retain a certain loathing for those in positions of power (authority-), and revere progress over tradition (sanctity-). If these assumptions hold, liberals are fundamentally more likely to align with the first three sets of values than the last three. Conservatives, meanwhile, also embrace the first three values when they answer calls for help from those within their communities (care), seek greater personal and corporate freedoms (liberty), and believe in equity over equality (fairness). However, unlike liberals, they also venerate and seek to safeguard the communities to which they belong (loyalty), hold firm to the traditional roles and norms representing the bonds of society over the ages (authority), and glorify orthodoxies that provide the foundation of religious belief (sanctity). I’ve included some graphics below to help illustrate Haidt’s hypothesis.

This isn’t to say that conservatives are necessarily more righteous. It’s that their moral construct is broader, covering all human values, while liberals have a moral construct more focused on care, liberty, and fairness. Haidt states that the left’s moral blind spot lies in their inability to acknowledge and speak to what he calls moral capital, i.e., the interlocking set of values, norms, identities, institutions, and mechanisms that suppress or regulate self-interest and make cooperative societies possible. The point here is that as much as we may feel in our moral hearts and minds that we are right and those opposed to us are wrong, both sides are grounded in their own equally moral ethical constructs, pulling the country in opposite ideological directions.

Maybe, it’s because I’ve spent the last month in Asia, but the comparison Haidt makes to Chinese philosophy struck a chord with me. He compares the two sides of American ideology to yin and yang, which he describes as:

Any pair of contrasting or seemingly opposed forces that are in fact complementary and interdependent. Night and day are not enemies, nor are hot and cold, summer and winter, male and female. We need both, often in a shifting or alternating balance. John Stuart Mill said that liberals and conservatives are like this: “A party of order or stability, and a party of progress or reform, are both necessary elements of a healthy state of political life.”

Quoting another British philosopher, Bertrand Russell, Haidt explains that, in addition to providing a counterweight to one another, each side wards off dangers for which the other side is ill equipped to manage. He argues that our moral minds and the differences we share allow people with divergent points of view, values, and goals to create a world in which the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. This, Haidt reasons, is a/the principal driver of the burgeoning of human society over the course of untold millennia. In contemporary American society, politics is so often seen as a zero-sum game – there are winners and there are losers. But the idea of a symbiosis between those on opposite sides of the ideological spectrum really reverberated with me.

We can see the interdependence of which Haidt speaks on display in the relationship between government and free enterprise. Haidt states that, by his account, corporations are the newest form of superorganism and have risen to levels equivalent to, or in excess of, those previously held by only states and nations. Because those running large corporations are so far removed from so many they are affecting, much of the time, corporations make decisions without the best interest of all stakeholders in mind, erring instead of the side of the bottom line. Because of their inherent moral construct, liberals understand this and seek to place power over corporations in the hands of the only other entity that could possibly hope to control them: governments. Conservatives, in their own right, believe in the power of free markets and the downside risks caused by excessive government regulations. Without the competition fostered within the petri dish of free markets, the innovations that make our world the dynamic, thriving place it is today would have never materialized.

This is just one of countless cases that exemplify how these two belief systems provide vital checks and balances to their partners on the opposite side. But if the two ideologies at play in America are in a position to work so seamlessly and effectively, why are so many so unhappy with it? Rather than dismantling the system or one of its halves, we as a nation need to change the way we work with this immutable and indispensable divide. One refinement with near universal appeal is to change the way congressional districts are drawn, so that the gerrymandered borders of power mongers past can be unsnarled and made more representative of those who are affected by the person elected to serve them. Speaking of elections, the way campaigns are financed seems to be an on-going point of concern for most people interested enough in this stuff to raise an eyebrow. If superorganism corporations and/or excessively wealthy individuals can contribute infinite sums of money to political campaigns, thereby swaying the outcome of elections, our democracy has been compromised. This must change. Finally, as it relates to the way we select those to represent us in this democracy, the primary election process needs further updating to make it more a direct function of the will of the voting public and less representative of those already in positions of political power. I can understand the concept of having so-called “super delegates” to the national conventions in order to honor certain party torchbearers, but the power to ordain a candidate simply cannot rest in the hands of less than a thousand individuals in a country that exceeds 300 million. If we hope to consider our voices part of the whole, to believe that our civil actions have some consequence, all votes, whether cast by elected or super delegates, must be representative of the will of the people.

To my mind, these changes are the best hope to create a democracy based more directly on the will of the people, moving America toward that “more perfect union.” But how will all this “fix” the gridlock that ensnares our capitals day after day, year after year, election after election, regardless of who is in office? How can the collegiality needed to cooperate with people with whom we disagree and see as “other” be brought back to this once nuanced profession of governing? That is the more difficult problem to solve, and that is a question that may come to define our time. The two party system that is at work in our country, with its dueling ideologies, creates an environment primed for stability, moderation, and collaboration, which, when compared to the alternatives, helps explain America’s ascendance to the head of the international table. And in the end, it doesn’t so much matter what we call ourselves – Democrat, Republican, Libertarian, liberal, conservative, somewhere in between, or otherwise. What is important is that we all have different points of view, recognizing that those differences are what make us greater, together. That is, greater than we would be if one side or the other established an oligarchic plurality as a result of multiple minority parties. Just ask the Uzbeks, Russians, and Koreans.²

Which leads us back to the prejudice that permeates virtually all of society today, but was on full display in Korea. How might that inclination be justified beyond simply attributing it to cultural differences? Haidt would argue that suspicion of and animosity toward outsiders has benefited human society in its evolution from familial packs, to tribes, to nations, to the wholly interconnected world in which we live today. And when put in that context, I understand the logic behind why prejudice and racism exist. But if asked whether they are necessary components of our current moral constructs, I simply cannot condone them. But that is because of my own values set, baked in from birth and crystallized over a lifetime of choices, a values set from which it is hard to break, no matter the rationality behind a counter argument. I guess the best we can hope for is that, much like what I’ve called for with respect to furthering accordance among partisans in public office, everyone takes steps to value the “other,” seeking to understand them, hoping to empathize with them, and trying to connect with them as best they can, despite, and moreover because of, their differences. We can only ask as much from those in elected office as we, ourselves, are willing to do.


¹ The countries of Uzbekistan, Russia, and South Korea have vastly different political compositions and processes from one another, but all share the same trait: their governments are controlled by a single ideology. Sometimes this is a result of multiple parties, others as a result of the cultural makeup of the country itself. However, in all cases mentioned above, the majority party is conservative.

² This isn’t to say that so-called “third parties” aren’t also a healthy part of the political process. However, their function has not been to win or govern, but to agitate, educate, generate new ideas, and supply the dynamic element in our political life. Inasmuch, I understand the draw of third parties for people who are single issue voters or who, for whatever reason, can’t get behind either of the two major party platforms, particularly if they live in a state that is so reliably red or blue the outcome of its electoral votes isn’t in question. It’s only when competing parties (with similar ideologies) cannibalize the vote of one another do votes for third parties work against voters’ interests, which, if happening routinely, can cause autocracies to emerge, holding the entire political system/process captive.

* I reference “The Great Divide” in the title, which is a phrase that has been used by numerous publications of late, from The Brookings Institute, to the New Yorker, the New York Times, and Gallup, to describe the current state of political affairs in the US. Note that all of the above mentioned publications, with the exception of the last, are considered left-leaning.

Haidt, J. (2012). The righteous mind: Why good people are divided by politics and religion. New York: Pantheon Books. That’s right, English teachers, I just dissed MLA in favor of APA.

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