“So what are you?”, asked a gentleman I had met only a few minutes prior whom I was discussing politics with. The question was ambiguous enough that I was not exactly sure what he was hoping to find out, though innocuous enough that I was not offended.
I replied, “What are you referencing?”
He said, “I’m a libertarian nationalist, what are you?”
His response was immediate enough that I could tell he had clearly thought and arrived at this self-description previous to our interaction. Though his response intrigued me, I hung on to his words for only a moment, before my mind slipped back to something else I have been thinking about a lot lately.
They’re not just for packing anymore. We put ourselves in them. We put others in them. We have shortcuts for everything these days – not just the things we type or the route we take to and from work – but also the world in which we live. The ways in which we define ourselves and to an ever increasing extent each other, is limited, detrimentally I would argue, to mental shortcuts, or boxes, that we use to sort out the world around us. “Liberal”, “conservative”, “snowflake”, “nationalist”, etc. Nuance, reasoned debate, conceptual dexterity – are dead. The diversity of color is out, black and white is in.
Either you are with us or against us. Unity of purpose, community, compromise – are history. In their place, a dependence on zero-sum calculations, detrimental individuality, and an adherence to rigid belief systems that render compromise impossible. There is no middle ground anymore, no intellectual space where principled positions are debated and moderate solutions agreed upon. There is this or that or nothing at all. The place where we used to stand together is now a void, all that remains is the space between. There once was a time when we united and overcame, today it seems all we do is divide and conquer.
I hate it.
Now don’t get me wrong. I will defend my beliefs and the things I stand for as voraciously as anyone. After all, if you don’t stand for something, you in turn stand for nothing. However, the ways in which we stand today – the way we dissect and divide the world, put each other in boxes and burn the bridges that once connected us to one another – I would argue is as corrosive to our democracy as anything outside of maybe the exaggerated influence that special interests and money have on the development of policy by our elected leaders.
It’s not that we disagree, it’s that we are disagreeable when we do so. Let’s be honest, in a country as large and diverse as the United States is, people are going to hold differing views of the world and different beliefs as to what they feel are the best solutions to the problems we face. Each of our experiences in this country are unique and therefore no two viewpoints will ever be exactly the same. Diversity – of people and beliefs – in the United States is as natural as air we breathe and the water we drink.
However, over the past few decades, it seems that we have lost track of the fact that at the end of the day, we are all Americans. Before any other defining characteristic is applied to us, even before our sex is determined by a doctor, we are already American. Everything else comes after. Whether we end up being Democrats, or Republicans, liberal or conservative, all comes after when we become Americans.
Yet increasingly so, it seems we want to divide ourselves by any means possible, and do everything we can to distinguish ourselves from those whom we disagree with. It’s not enough to just disagree with someone, we must now be vehement in our disagreement. It’s not enough to be a Democrat, you must also now be a liberal. Our divisions have become almost tribal in nature. Each time an issue comes up, it seems like an ideological purity test is applied. If you do not happen to run far enough to your side of the aisle, well you might as well be standing on the opposite side of the aisle. You are an enemy of your own.
It’s not just average citizens either, although we are just as at fault as our leaders. I do not think I will ever forget hearing then Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell say that Republican’s number one goal was to ensure that President Obama was a single-term president. Now, call me crazy, but I am pretty certain that there should have been some other more important goals they could have dedicated themselves to at the time. Maybe helping to stop the economy from collapsing, or finding a solution to people’s rising healthcare costs, or containing an evermore dangerous North Korea…the list goes on and on. The fact of the matter is that if Barack Obama was a one-term president the country as a whole would have probably been worse off, and that would have been a far worse outcome than President Obama being in office for another four years.
More recently, I heard an elected official from the state of Alabama say that if he had to choose between voting for a Democrat or a child molester, he would not vote for the Democrat. Now let that sink in for a moment. An elected official literally said that we would rather vote for a child molester before a Democrat. It’s astonishing that something like this could be said, but that’s the nature of the world in which we now live and it’s absurd. Though I am a Democrat I am not making a partisan point here either. I would be just as quick to call out a Democrat if he or she made such a ridiculous statement. My point is, it’s sad that our politics have become so toxic that such statements are made at all.
When you have two governing parties that seem to have forgotten what compromise is, retreated into their respective, but far from respectable, political corners, and are willing to fight to the death before they give so much as an inch, we all lose. When those on the left and those on the right fail to talk to each other and instead yell right past one another, the voice of reason becomes inaudible. When each issue is used as a wedge to drive the divide deeper instead of an opportunity to build a bridge that spans the space between, we all slip a little deeper into the void. When opposition is nothing more than opportunistic, and debate devolves into disagreeable disarray, our democracy is damaged. No one wins when all we do is talk and never even bother to listen. When political leaders find the necessity to draft legislation in the dark, the light will surely fail to shine equally across all of those whose laws are being written in secrecy. Yet, let us not be confused – the full throated opposition of those not included in the process is just as corrosive to our democracy as those operating in secrecy. For how can a party reject, in its entirety, something they are complaining about having not had the chance to even read?
None of it makes sense.
Yet as average citizens we have found a way to make sense of it. We do so by putting ourselves and everyone else into boxes and separating them however we see fit. We make mental notes and use shortcuts, buy into oft repeated stereotypes, pay attention to only the headlines and not the details. We accept unverified claims as fact, fail to dig deeper, and fall prey to fake news and false innuendo. We all too often surround ourselves only with people whose beliefs are congruent with our own, while failing to take into account that just because someone does not agree with you, does not necessarily make them wrong.
The vast majority of us have built a bubble around ourselves, constructed of the company we keep, the media we consume, and the values we espouse to hold dear. The longer we go without venturing outside of our bubbles, the more impenetrable they become to conflicting views and alternate viewpoints. We dig our trenches deeper with each headline we consume that is cognitively harmonious with our constructed belief systems. The space between us and those who we do not agree with only grows wider as days go by.
In this sense, we are just as culpable in the diminution of our democracy and dissolution of reasoned debate and compromise as our leaders. After all, we live in a representative democracy where our leaders are elected by the citizens they represent. If we continue to divide ourselves further, fall prey to fake news, and fail to seek truth and understanding, then the natural result will be elected officials who do the same. We can no more fault them for not listening to each other than we fault ourselves if we fail to listen to one another as well. When we are so quick, and devastatingly comfortable, to put ourselves in boxes such as “libertarian nationalist”, we are just as comfortable to put others in boxes as well. Therefore, we should not be surprised at the current state of affairs.
Donald Trump is not an accident or an aberration. He is the summation.
He is the product of the divided country in which we live. What most of us failed to realize, which he cynically latched on to and rode all the way to the Oval Office, was that maybe for the first time in America’s history, or at least since the Civil War, Americans are more comfortable being defined by what divides us than what unites us. I would even go so far as to say that we can more readily express what we stand against than what we stand for. Donald’s campaign seemed to understand that people are more comfortable with being put into boxes and labeled by others than ever before. In fact, before anyone else puts us in a box, we put ourselves in one first.
The 2016 campaign did not divide us, it just exploited the divisions that already existed, and sorted the boxes accordingly. The faults that opened were not new, nor surprising, their roots can be traced back through generations of Americans. The fact is, the wounds of our past never fully healed and were easily reopened by a campaign whose driving force was division.
In this respect, we should not be surprised by the impact that fake news had on the views of voters. Fake news is only as effective as the divided atmosphere in which it enters, only persuasive to the mind already primed with preexisting beliefs that agree with the media being consumed. In an era when we rarely seek out information that challenges our beliefs, when all we want to consume is what we already believe, then we are exceptionally susceptible to anything that reinfoces our beliefs.
We are not only the creator and guardian of our boxes, but also the prisoner trapped inside.
My answer to my questioner’s inquiry could have been that I am a Democrat, but I had boxes on my mind. The fact is that I have voted for the Democratic nominee for president for four consecutive elections now, but I am not bound to do so for forever. If we were keeping score on my selection for president, my record would be 2-2, but that fact is irrelevant and I am okay with that. In a democracy, you are going to win some elections and lose some as well. Losing an election is not the end of the world, just a new opportunity for debate.
I have always felt that the values of the Democratic Party more closely aligned with my own than those of the Republican Party and therefore I have leaned in that direction since I can remember. That does not mean that I am oblivious or dismissive of all Republicans or the Republican Party as whole though. As I said before, I am just as quick to criticize a Democrat as a Republican. I mean, Anthony Weiner and Rod Blagojevich were an embarrassment to Democrats after all. Being a Democrat also does not mean that I hate all things conservative or love all things liberal. To be honest the extremes of either end of the political spectrum have always been a little uncomfortable for me.
I do not believe in putting people or myself into boxes. I have never liked constriction. So to be narrowly defined, by myself or anyone else, just does not fit with who I am. When we do that – when we put people into these narrowly defined boxes – we eliminate nuance, diminish our ability to find common ground and destroy our ability to relate to one another. Rigid adherence to worn out dogmas limits our ability to empathize, understand, and reach common sense, agreeable solutions to the problems we confront that are acceptable for all parties concerned.
So with that mind, my answer to his question was simply what we all are, long before we ever package ourselves for the world:
and I fucking hate boxes.”