Why Is Our Country So Divided (and What Can We Do About It)?

Archivist Jeff Nilsson talks to Spencer Critchley, author of “Patriots of Two Nations: Why Trump Was Inevitable and What Happens Next,” about why Americans have such polarized views of the world.

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The name of our nation claims we are united, but one could compile a history of America just by chronicling our civil conflicts. Starting with the clash over the independence movement, Americans have been bitterly divided over tradition, faith, morals, and the rights of people of color, women, the poor, immigrants, and other groups. And, of course, we are divided between political parties.

Today, there’s a deep gulf in American opinion, which seems to be growing wider and deeper.Back in 1994, a Pew Research Poll reported that the partisan split over racial discrimination, immigration, and international relations was 15 percent. By 2017, it was 36 percent.

Spencer Critchley, author of Patriots of Two Nations: Why Trump Was Inevitable and What Happens Next, says that behind many of our arguments lie polarized views of the world that go back to our earliest days.

Cover for the Book "Patriots of Two Nations"
Patriots of Two Nations: Why Trump Was Inevitable and What Happens Next by Spencer Critchley (McDavid Media)

Critchley explains that on one side are the followers of Enlightenment, who believe in science, reason, and the rule of law. It was enlightenment thinkers who framed our government and wrote our Constitution. Today’s followers of the enlightenment believe in a “civic nation,” founded on a social contract between the individual and the state. The citizen exchanges a measure of personal liberty for membership in a mutually supportive society.

On the other side are followers of the Counter-Enlightenment, who believe a focus on reason is too constraining. It doesn’t account for culture, art, tradition, spirituality — the elements that bring richness to life. This group believes in an “ethnic nation,” which is rooted in their race and culture. While this focus can appeal to bigots, counter-enlightenment people are not necessarily racist. In an interview with the Post, he said,“Many thoughtful people come from the counter-enlightenment world view.”

The gap between the two world views is so great that Critchley, a former campaign advisor to Barack Obama, says that it has created alienation and suspicion, helped on by politicians and the media playing on resentments. “Much of the division has been exaggerated,” he says. “A lot of money can be made by making people angry and afraid.”

Yet there are a considerable number of Americans who have embraced the extremes of ideology. At the far extremes of counter-enlightenment are white supremacists. At the other extreme are people who Critchley says believe in “identity policing, endless litigating, political correctness, and punishing people for not being ‘woke’ enough.”

Critchley, who considers himself part of the enlightenment crowd, is aware of how easy it is to dismiss the opposing points of view. He says, “We live lives of high rationalism most of the time. We think in terms of facts, logic, productivity. We tend to believe facts and logic explain everything.”

The two groups’ attitudes toward culture is significant, he adds. “Enlightenment people can become disconnected from any particular culture. This is part of what’s behind the ‘globalist’ charge. Sometimes that refers to the global financial elite, and sometimes it’s veiled antisemitism, but it can also point to this sense of cultural emptiness.” Critchley says that globalism is a concept that disconnects people from the symbols and traditions that shape their lives. Critchley compares it to the campaign to teach Esperanto, “the international language.” He wonders at “the idea that anyone would want to speak a language rooted in no culture at all.”

What is true in language is also true of history, art, and human psychology. Counter-Enlightenment people “would argue that people are inherently subjective and tied to a particular location.” Culture is crucial.

Says Critchley, “The Democratic party — I’ve seen it up close — is sometimes stuck in a science-driven world. They’re really good at using science and coming up with solutions.” But they can be oblivious to culture.

“A lot of liberals would be surprised that while more than 90 percent of Blacks consider themselves Democrats, only about a quarter would define themselves as liberal.” Critchley says that they need to recognize “there are many cultures alive in the Black community.”

The current level of social friction threatens to get out of hand. But the situation can’t be blamed on a polarizing president and the general tone of today’s politics, Critchley maintains. The ideological division is far older and runs far deeper, and will still be with us after this administration has gone.

Sooner or later, we must make the effort to reunite. The solution, Critchley says, is like dieting: “it’s simple but it’s hard.”

When talking with someone with a different perspective, he advises, “stop trying to make sense for a while, stop trying to correct them. Practice some awareness, compassion. And find some shared values.”

It will probably take some digging and the results may be surprising. “We must learn to respond to people in a more intuitive way,” Critchley says. “We must build trust. Connect first, debate later.”

Solving Our Long Division Problem

In his book, Critchley makes several suggestions for talking with fellow Americans of opposing political beliefs.

  1. Right from the start, show respect, good will, and vulnerability. Leave your defenses behind and show you’re ready to be honest and authentic.
  2. Control the natural human instinct to judge people who disagree with you. Just be aware of what they’re saying without trying to correct them. You can return to your differences later, maybe, after you’ve established trust.
  3. Look for your points of agreement. De-emphasize the differences. Trust can grow from shared values.
  4. Focus on building trust, not making points. When ideological opponents can stop vilifying each other, and can stop viewing different viewpoints as evil, American society can resume the work of compromise and progress.
  5. Don’t expect opposition to disappear. The point is not to eliminate conflict but to repair our society’s ability to handle it constructively.

Featured image: Map from the cover of Patriots of Two Nations: Why Trump Was Inevitable and What Happens Next by Spencer Critchley (McDavid Media, ©Spencer Critchley. All rights reserved.)

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