I‘m not a historian or a social scientist or a staffer at the Pew Research Center. I’m just an ordinary citizen racking my brain to understand what happened to my country while I was away working as an expat in the serene Central European state of bliss known as Switzerland.
When I left the U.S. in 2000, the country was in the midst of the Florida recount that would determine whether Bush or Gore would be our next president. People were as angrily divided as anyone could remember or imagine.
Fast forward to 2016 and, well, the more things change, the more they stay the same. Only they get a whole lot worse.
Racists Versus Cry-Babies
Since making my eye-opening re-entry a few months ago, I’ve found it nearly impossible to remain objective, composed or certain of what’s true and what’s been concocted to stoke fear and outrage on either side of any issue. The head of human resources where I’ve been working in New York just had to issue an all-employee message urging sensitivity to opposing views and instructing people not to call one another racists or cry-babies. There’ve been some pretty unpleasant exchanges around the coffee machine lately.
In my effort to better understand the conflict I’ve picked the brains of like-minded and unlike-minded friends and colleagues at work, planted myself in front of the television set with my remote navigating a diverse route across network news, Fox, CNN and MSNBC, and devoured everything I could read, including an online visit to Breitbart News, and a trip to Barnes & Noble to pick up New York Times columnist Thomas L. Friedman’s insightful new book, “Thank You for Being Late: An Optimist’s Guide to Thriving in the Age of Accelerations.”
Friedman, who describes himself these days as an “explanatory journalist,” attributes our turbulent times to three intersecting factors that are moving too fast to keep up with: technology, globalization and climate change. No doubt these influences are real, capable of producing the tectonic shifts Friedman brilliantly elaborates and responsible for much of what’s unsettling our world.
But as I make my way back into American life after more than a decade in the sweet tranquility of Switzerland, other explanations come to mind that I believe are equally as culpable for our current circumstances.
Who Let the Genies Out?
Scanning the memories of my American past, I see in the rear-view mirror a series of genies escaping from their bottles, reeking havoc in their paths and planting the seeds of the great unravelling of our civil society. I count five of them, mostly interrelated and all coming from a single vessel, conspiring over the past four or five decades to instigate my countrymen’s willingness to throw caution, decorum, decency, convention, and most of all a sense of stability, out the window to roll the dice for a chance at change.
- Racial Division: The 1960s witnessed a spate of riots in black neighborhoods across the country. What caused them? Wikepedia says “urban decay,” including discrimination, poverty, high unemployment, poor schools, poor healthcare, housing inadequacy and police brutality. Sound familiar? At the time, President Lyndon B. Johnson commissioned a study called the Kerner Report, which concluded that the root causes were inept federal and state governments that had pursued failed housing, education and social-service policies. It concluded with this unforgettably dark assessment: “Our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white – separate and unequal.” The sea of black people that filled the Superdome in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina in August 2005 stuck me as an indelible symbol of that prediction come to pass. And this was after a succession of both Democratic and Republican administrations. So how outrageous is it for Donald Trump to ask, “What the hell do you have to lose?”
- Declining Standards and Expectations: In June 1969 I passed all my high school final exams, had been accepted to college and had only a few days of graduation rehearsal standing between me and my wide-open future. I flaunted my intoxicating sense of freedom walking the school corridors wearing a pair of jeans with a V-neck sweater and no shirt underneath and sandals without socks. “Young man,” a stern voice called from behind me. It was the assistant principle, Mr. Ben. “You can’t come to this school dressed like that,” he cautioned me. “Why not?” I asked. “I’ve taken all my courses, passed all my exams and gotten into college.” He told me that lowering standards of dress would lead to decreased standards of behavior, performance and order, ultimately cascading into chaos. I disagreed. But I went home and changed my clothes and in the subsequent years watched much of his forecast materialize.
- Coarsening American Culture: The rise of the so-called confrontational tabloid TV show began before I left the country on my expat assignment and spread like a virulent virus while I was away. Likewise the glorification of gangster rap, thug life and urban street culture. All this nudged ever more of the previously unacceptable into not only the tolerable but the wildly popular, some of it enjoyed as much by me as the next guy. But what do you get when you combine the Jerry Springer Show with Celebrity Apprentice with Love & Hip-Hop Atlanta and let it sneak into your electoral process? I’m afraid we’re looking at it.
- Polarizing Media (mainstream and cable TV news, talk radio, Twitter): As much as I thought I was staying on top of things in America from abroad by reading newspapers and magazines and watching the U.S. news that was available on TV, I realized when I returned that there’s nothing like the nonstop barrage of incitement one is exposed to in our country. I soon realized why my American friends so often said they hated the opposition and could no longer bear to speak to them. I felt that happening to me after a few weeks. But after having deep discussions with people who cautiously confided that they were supporting Donald Trump, I realized I had been manipulated and struggled to regain my impartiality. These people were not all racists or ignoramuses. They told me they wanted lower taxes, less welfare fraud, fewer stifling regulations and more security in an increasingly dangerous world. They have no quarrel with minorities or people with whatever sexual orientations, but neither do they want to be forcibly subjected to the uncomfortable imposition of transgender bathrooms as a political imperative. I may disagree with them, but I wouldn’t call these hateful or ignorant views. Nevertheless, families are being ripped apart by the antipathies spawned and perpetuated by our polarizing media.
- Identity Politics: In an excellent opinion piece in The New York Times called “The End of Identity Liberalism,” Mark Lilla, a professor of the humanities at Columbia University, noted that “In recent years American liberalism has slipped into a kind of moral panic about racial, gender and sexual identity,” calling this a profound and self-defeating mistake. Lilla said “the fixation on diversity in our schools and in the press has produced a generation of liberals and progressives narcissistically unaware of conditions outside their self-defined groups, and indifferent to the task of reaching out to Americans in every walk of life.” He pointed out that identity politics – the obsession with showing not only tolerance but special attention and celebration of various groups – can backfire when it omits one group, notably white Christian Americans, especially but not limited to males, who have not gone to college. And, he warned, “Those who play the identity game should be prepared to lose it.” I think that’s what just happened.
- The Root Cause – Abdication of Responsibility: In the year 2000 I was selected as my company’s representative in a memorable program called “Leadership New Jersey” that annually selected 50 people from all walks of life to participate in a monthly series of weekend retreats diving into public policy issues in many of the state’s towns and cities. An African American legislator from a northern New Jersey city told the story of leaving on a train for boot camp in the mid-60s before going off to fight in Vietnam. He recalled seeing a couple of black guys lifting weights on the side of the railroad tracks and drinking 40-ounce cans of beer. When he returned after his tour of duty, he said, the two had grown to a dozen or more, and his city had suffered a marked decline. “In your opinion, what was the cause,” I asked him. I’ve never forgotten his answer. He said, “We began to accept the unacceptable.”
When I first arrived in Switzerland early in the new millennium, I was astounded by the way the country seemed to have walled itself off from so much of the deterioration that ravaged America. It was as if I’d traveled back in time to the 1950s. Streets were clean, people were polite and orderly, rules were followed and rule-breakers were quickly and angrily admonished by the nearest passer-by. Things worked. They still do.
America is not Switzerland, or Norway or Sweden. Nor is it ever going back to 1957. But it needs to stop accepting the unacceptable – in extreme income inequality, in the deterioration of its inner cities as well as its roads, bridges and transportation systems, in its failure to help its displaced workers learn new skills, in its divisive and paralyzing media and politics.
I’m not confident that Donald Trump is the man to lasso those genies and wrestle them back into their bottles. But I can’t hate my fellow citizens – not those I know to be well-intended – for voting for him to try. I’ll be surprised if he succeeds. But I won’t be angry just because I was on the other side.