I’ve read all the articles about what a sad day it was when Donald Trump was voted in as the 45th President of the United States.
That’s not what I’m talking about.
I’m talking about the general malaise our Former President Carter identified. If you reread his 1979 speech, you understand that he essentially condemns our behavior as a nation.
“The threat is nearly invisible in ordinary ways. It is a crisis of confidence. It is a crisis that strikes at the very heart and soul and spirit of our national will. We can see this crisis in the growing doubt about the meaning of our own lives and in the loss of a unity of purpose for our nation.”
It is nearly 40 years later and we are still in the same place. If you were to ask President Carter why we’re still here, he would likely tell you we have not, as a culture, addressed the deficiency in our collective values. Instead, we have employed the gross over consumption of food, drugs & alcohol, and goods as numbing agents, as evidenced by our obesity problem, highest levels of addiction and mental health issues in history, and per capita debt.
U.S. Per Capita Debt 1990 - 2015 (USD)
The Numbing of America also helps explain the broad popularity of reality television. Are people watching these because the show’s participants are positive, uplifting and inspiring characters? More likely, it is because reality show “stars” are somewhat damaged goods, so it is a way to be distracted by watching people who actually seem worse than us, so we can feel better about ourselves.
We self-medicate in all of these different ways to avoid our real issues and real feelings. We no longer entertain points of view that don’t support our own because we don’t like to be uncomfortable. We’ve gotten so good at numbing. We don’t want to feel sad, so we have developed plenty of ways to find comfort from like-minded others, from the news we curate to the places we live.
In his 2008 book, The Big Sort, Bill Bishop wrote:
“America may be more diverse than ever coast to coast, but the places where we live are becoming increasingly crowded with people who live, think, and vote like we do. This social transformation didn't happen by accident. We've built a country where we can all choose the neighborhood and church and news show — most compatible with our lifestyle and beliefs.”
Over the past 50 years, we have created and maintained social conditions whereby we developed greater tolerance on one hand, coming together more than ever on physical attributes and demography, but we have secretly cultivated greater narrowmindedness on the other hand, as we aligned on common ideals in carefully curated subgroups.
Social media has facilitated and amplified that behavior, fueling the ideological civil war that’s been brewing for a couple of decades.
On these days after Abraham Lincoln’s birthday, we should revisit one of his many harbingers:
We should also be reminded of the irony of celebrating President’s Day Weekend in honor of two dead presidents as we wage an ideological civil war that has been brought to the forefront of our consciousness by our existing president.
But, to reiterate, President Trump is not the issue. We are.
The advent of the “Trump Way” – brash, direct, opinionated, unafraid to offend – has outed all the dormant subcultures and factions bubbling below the surface of our collective consciousness and many of these are at odds with each other.
It used to be that Americans had the benefit of a common enemy to rally behind (or at least distract us), like Communist Russia. Or Saddam Hussein. Or Michael Bolton.
Today, there is no single enemy large enough to capture our national attention, so we have pockets of protest against various issues but no single galvanizing cause to unite us.
Patrick Henry, most famous for his “give me liberty or give me death” speech, also said this:
Last week’s Super Bowl advertising was a clear indicator of our country’s schism into factions, with so many of the ads addressing sociopolitical issues that they failed to fundamentally communicate their brand story and advertise their products and services. (Lookin’ at you, Airbnb)
Everyone is distracted, and there’s a pervasive sadness to our days, more powerful than Mercury in retrograde, folks.
SNL, that great cultural mirror of generations, picked up on this in its Cheetos Ad Pitch skit Saturday night. Alec Baldwin as ad executive mocking the current state of the industry seemed more an indictment of us than of Marketing in the Trump Age.
Let me remind you, we have created these conditions and we perpetuate them on social media while simultaneously dreading the next news headline that pings across our devices.
So, what can we do?
Notorious R.G.B has an idea. In her OpEd in The New York Times, Ruth Bader Ginsberg talked about how the Supreme Court grapples with the hard questions.
“…by reasoning together at our conferences and, with more depth and precision, through circulation of, and responses to, draft opinions, we ultimately agree far more often than we divide sharply.” (my emphasis)
That’s likely a good place for us to start.
She goes on: “Despite our strong disagreements on cardinal issues — think, for example, of controls on political campaign spending, affirmative action, access to abortion — we genuinely respect one another, even enjoy one another’s company. Collegiality is crucial to the success of our mission.”
Collegiality requires the ability to entertain ideas with which one doesn’t necessarily agree. To ignore, block, and delete dissenting opinions then, is not collegial, and can have disastrous consequences.
As I said, Donald Trump is not the Issue. We are.