Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Part II: An America United: Valuing Diverse Means to Common Ends

Yesterday, we explored “The Big Sort” of the American electorate. Today, in Part II, we’ll examine ways to combat this trend.

Look, men, let’s quit arguing and kidding ourselves. We’re all in the same boat. And we’re all gonna sink unless we stick together.”

-- John Wayne, Three Faces West, 1940

Maintaining unity in a nation as diverse as America can sometimes seem impossible. As President John Adams wrote in 1818:

The colonies had grown up under constitutions of government so different, there was so great a variety of religions, they were composed of so many different nations, their customs, manners, and habits had so little resemblance, and their intercourse had been so rare, and their knowledge of each other so imperfect, that to unite them in the same principles in theory and the same system of action, was certainly a very difficult enterprise.

And yet, against all odds, “Thirteen clocks were made to strike together — a perfection of mechanism, which no artist had ever before effected.”

In the ensuing two centuries, the U.S. has welcomed millions of immigrants from every corner of the globe. As we seek to stitch together the fraying threads of common experience and values that are central to the preservation of the Union, it is useful to look at what drew these immigrants to the Golden Door.

The American Dream is often cast in material terms, but its true nature is much deeper. As James Truslow Adams wrote in 1931:

[The American Dream] is not a dream of motor cars and high wages merely, but a dream of social order in which each man and each woman shall be able to attain to the fullest stature of which they are innately capable, and be recognized by others for what they are, regardless of the fortuitous circumstances of birth or position.

Waves of immigrants came to America with different customs, languages, skills, beliefs, and histories. However, their united purpose—a new life in a new land, one that offered opportunity and liberty, was and is stronger than their differences.

That’s why the first step in maintaining a united America is to acknowledge and honor our common ends.

Of course, it gets harder from there; for while we understand that we share a common set of goals as Americans, it is inescapable that we view distinct means as pathways to those ends.  Sometimes these disagreements will be intractable. There is, after all, no daylight between those who believe that LGBT Americans deserve equal protection of the laws and those who believe that discrimination on account of sexual orientation should be legal.

More often than not, however, there is room for experimentation, for trial and error, for pragmatic (rater than ideological) efforts to change policy. Most Americans agree that a building block of society is that children receive a high quality education. And while you may hear otherwise from various interest groups, the truth is that nobody knows exactly how to achieve that and no group has a monopoly on good ideas.

Instead of bowing to vitriolic attacks on the very character of those who disagree with us about the means, we should remember the foundational commonality of purpose and seek to further different ideas simultaneously in an effort to get at scalable solutions to serious problems.
Workers at CCC Camp, Liberty Island, NY, 1935
This effort is made more difficult by our propensity to live, work, and socialize in relatively homogenous bubbles. In fact, technology—which in many ways has brought the world closer together than ever before—will continue to have the paradoxical effect of dividing us, unless we calibrate it to nudge people toward ideas/people different from themselves (see generally, Cass Sunstein's 2.0).

We ought not assume, however, that technology can save us from ourselves. Rather, an understanding of and respect for one another must go far deeper than the “newsfeed” or promoted tweet of the day.

It starts early, by bringing together children of different backgrounds in furtherance of common goals. But it shouldn’t end there. My grandfather, Louis Airoldi, was one of over 3 million young American men to participate in the Civilian Conservation Corps—a program that not only built many of our cherished national treasures, but also brought together people of very different backgrounds in furtherance of a common goal.

As author Jonathan Alter told PBS’ American Experience, “The CCC Corps members…were thrust together, sent out from whatever neighborhood they came from, out into the countryside, put in these barracks. And they had to learn how to deal with each other. The only thing they had in common was that they were poor. And they needed a job.”

The anecdotal experience of team-building from the CCC camp has been reaffirmed by studies suggesting that tasking individuals with a common goal or purpose leads them to develop team-like relationships that otherwise may not have taken place.

While we lack the material urgency of the Depression, we are experiencing signs of a different kind of malaise—declining social institutions, a deep sense of “otherness”, and an inability to speak to, rather than beyond, one another. We may not need a second CCC to put people to work, but we could certainly use a second CCC (or equivalent public service program) to bring women and men together in furtherance of a common purpose greater than themselves.

But beyond any big program or new initiative, what is needed more than anything else is for leaders to set an example for the nation by employing a dialogue of understanding and respect; embracing a self-effacing modesty about the truth of one’s own values and beliefs and eschewing the politics of party for the politics of the possible.

In the West Wing episode Lies, Damn Lies, and Statistics, President Josiah Bartlet (a New Hampshire liberal) approaches Senator Max Lobell (a conservative Republican) about an issue of mural interest. The dialogue reads:

President Bartlet: We agree on nothing, Max.

Senator Lobell: Yes, sir.

President Bartlet: Education, guns, drugs, school prayer, gays, defense spending, taxes - you name it, we disagree.

Senator Lobell: You know why?

President Bartlet: Because I'm a lily-livered, bleeding-heart, liberal, egghead communist.

Senator Lobell: Yes, sir. And I'm a gun-toting, redneck son-of-a-bitch.

President Bartlet: Yes, you are.

Senator Lobell: We agree on that.

President Bartlet: We also agree on campaign finance.

Senator Lobell: Yes, sir.

After President Bartlet secures Lobell’s promise to support his nominees to the Federal Election Commission, Lobell asks, “And what do I get in exchange?” Bartlet responds, “The thanks of a grateful President.”

We may live in a cynical age, where the no-holes-barred, backroom backstabbing of House of Cards reflects our current belief (or lack thereof) in the state of politics. But the truth is that the “better angels of our nature” are in line with the hope and aspiration of The West Wing—the type of hope that has long embodied the American Experience; the type of hope that will ensure that the Experience long endures.

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