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.

Map of Electoral college results
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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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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  1. As I read so many good articles like this one, and the replies that follow, it shows that most of us are on the same page. We want honesty, integrity, respect and robust debate to find wisdom. Everything that is not happening by those who control the levers of power both in government and the media. The level of deceit, libel and greed is burning up what little capital we may have remaining.

    So how do We The People take it back before it gets worse then it already is? We have to think globally and act locally. We have to be an engaged citizenry. Freedom dies in darkness…those of us of all walks of life who love this country and its foundations must take it back from the crazy people who have seeped into our lawmaking and positions of influence (schools, governments, corporations etc.). What distinguishes us from most all other countries is that we have a Constitution and Bill of Rights. We have a path forward to get it right for all Americans while not governing from the extremes. And governance has a direct relationship with morality and decency. Protect the children and give them a chance to become adults who may then make their decisions as to the way they wish to walk. Recognize right from wrong or else become confused, promote confusion and watch entropy accelerate. A Republic can only be kept when the life energy of good people keeps entropy at bay. When good people stand and watch and do nothing the spirit will begin its spiral into darkness…

  2. Great article.
    Its sad that media isnt held to a non bias standard.
    I watch news from left run organizations as well as right run organizations.
    We will never stop being laughed at as long as our media is allowed to have bias reporting.
    Example: trump says new york is infested with rats. CNN guy publicly states that Trump was referring to black people; and worse than that, CNN endorced the statement.
    How can we come together when idiots are allowed to make statements like that.
    It also didnt help Trump keeps opening his mouth and pissing people off.
    Media ran this election.
    I know that in Minnesota 95% of the area votes red, yet that 5% that votes blue are all packed into one area.
    Immigrants are supposed to Assimilate to US culture (to an extent), but instead of allowing this to take place, we segregated them to communities like in st paul and Minneapolis where they form gangs and communities that are not assimilated at all. The African Americans (from Africa) in these areas mostly dont associate with anyone outside their own race. While this shouldnt be the biggest issue, it definitely played a part and that is not assimilating.
    Being that i grew up on the lower end of middle class ive seen it.
    I am native american. I grew up around mostly whites. And one thing ive noticed, is the majority of everyone looks at you without color; so much so that when discussing sensitive topics im just a person…. funny i was called racist by a white friend who has one minority friend, me, because i didnt agree with him politically. I respect other peoples opinions, but if a, government funded and supported mob is burning down minority communities, thats not anything other than political.
    We have free citizenz being shot and killed for supporting their president.
    When we take care of one race (blacks) and ignore all the rest we create divide within the minority community.
    When our attorney general was allowed to release clips of the George Floyd video with bias intent, we opened the door to all of this.
    When other minorities are killed by police and shoved under the rug because they dont have the numbers to sway a vote (Jonathan Tubby, native american, shot 8 times inside the police station handcuffed and unarmed) there is a problem.
    All lives matter all the time, not just during elections.

  3. Jeff, this IS a great article, and I agree with Richard and Jason here as well. I’ve been an Independent for YEARS because I’m so disgusted with both major parties. 2020 has only solidified it with COVID and its resulting economic calamity, with both spewing out unprecedented hatred of each other, and mostly to the American public. Those who solidly align themselves with either party need to know both are bought and paid for by Wall Street and the major corporations. They only care about them, their share and stockholders supplyin’ the grease that make their s#*++y parties work—-for them.

    Its tremendously contributed to the impossible wealth gap, creating more division and hatred which has also contributed to the unprecedented racial horrors of this year. Whoever would have thought streets and cities in the U.S would resemble the Middle East? People are out of work and suffering in unprecedented numbers for 8 months and as of today 234,000+ deaths from Covid-19!! To our government it might as well be May 26, 1957!

    Most other countries actually put their people first. The U.S. puts their people dead last. Here’s a sampling of several other countries nowhere near “the richest country in the world”. Of course in these other countries (listed in alphabetical order) they don’t have HALF of their nation’s wealth in the hands of just 59 people either.

    The following is stimulus relief money being given to their citizens due to the pandemic per MONTH!

    Again, in alphabetical order:

    AUSTRALIA: $1,993 a month.
    CANADA: $1,433 a month
    DENMARK: Up to $3,288 a month
    FRANCE: UP to $7.575 a month
    GERMANY: Up to $7,326 a month
    IRELAND: Up to $1,793 a month
    ENGLAND: Up to 3,084 a month

    U.S.A.: $1.200 To last for 33 WEEKS & COUNTING!!!

    Is is any wonder, really, that the U.S. is one of THE unhappiest countries on the planet??! Knowing your own government is INTENTIONALLY and JOYOUSLY working AGAINST YOU, every step of the way, with everything; EVERYTHING going wrong all at once?? Personal vendettas at the expense of millions: “Knife ’em in the back!”

    The tragic, crumbling condition this nation, that once held so much promise, is of no surprise when all 5 of the virtues Richard paraphrased are scoffed at, laughed at, spat on, from the highest levels of the government (including the White House of course) on down as a total joke. This is a big reason our nation is seen this way around the world, and our citizens pitied in their darkest hours. There’s NOTHING funny about jokes where the U.S. is the punchline to you or me. To our leaders and government though, obviously the louder the laughs, the better! They’re looking forward to a fun ’21.

  4. I love this article, one of the few in my opinion, where it is not blatantly obvious who that person voted for.

  5. Great article!
    To paraphrase:
    (for myself)

    1. Be honest.
    2. Don’t judge.
    3. Recognize shared values.
    4. Don’t try to claim the “moral high ground”.
    5. Expect and respect opposite viewpoints.


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