Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Love of Country in an Era of Social Divide

The title of this post notwithstanding, this is not going to be a rah rah piece.  I'm not the right person to write such a piece and, in the moment we seem to be in, nobody wants to read such a piece.  If we ever do get out of this moment, note that I wrote if and not when, there will be some questions to ask which we might start to think about now.  We should also reflect some on what it is that the current moment is doing to influence our own behavior.  Are we cognizant of that?  Do we care?  Should we care?  I believe there is some connection between the two.  The questions we will want to ask if we get out of this moment might have their answer depend on how we are behaving while we're in it.  So that is worth thinking through.

The questions I want to get at are about ordinary voters and how they regard each other.  How voters regard the political class seems too fraught with intrigue and uncertainty now to make any interesting conclusion on that score at present.  But to help make this discussion concrete, I will assume with some broad strokes the outcome when we get past the current moment.  The Trump Administration will be humiliated.  The Republicans in Congress will be embarrassed.  Many voters who supported Trump will have expected something else and, after realizing their disappointment, will feel shame that they made such a choice.  As near as I can tell there isn't evidence of this happening now.   (Or there is some of it happening, but not yet enough to matter.) The supporters are still there, backing their candidate.  Neither Republicans in Congress nor in the Trump Administration will admit to major errors and wrongdoing.  However, in assessing likelihoods, this seems to me what will happen, with the question more when than if.  I will readily admit, this assumption fits my own preferences and my own inclination to think where there's smoke there is fire.  Maybe it really is all just a joke.  But my inclination is to think it's not.  And eventually, though I know not when, my assumption is that the insiders will get seriously burned.

Here are some questions I want to think about.  What will then happen to the rest of us?  Will it be possible then for us to come together as a nation, having finally recognized the folly in our divisiveness?  Or have we already reached a point of no return, engaged in a social media repeat of the Civil War, that because it doesn't actually happen on a battlefield will never find terminus?

I am not neutral as to which of these scenarios I'd like to see play out.  I would like the harsh division to come to an end or, if that is not possible, then for it to be toned down several notches. In yesterday's NY Times, Roger Cohen's column is about this division, even within a family, with a liberal adult daughter and a conservative father unable to talk with one another about our politics.   Cohen's solution - we must listen to each other.  There is wisdom in that.  It is consistent with current thinking about good management practice.  For example, if you do a search on Bolman and Deal Chapter 8, you will find this PowerPoint, which focuses on the work of Argyris and Schon, both Model 1, which explains how conflict arises, and Model 2, which can prevent it.  Model 2 is based on listening, finding common ground, and being empirical in investigating maintained assumptions that may prove erroneous.  While Model 2 offers the ideal we'd like to achieve, it may not be common in actual practice. 

For that reason, it seems at present that ending the harsh division is unlikely to happen.  But one can still hope for the best and consider what might be done to make it more likely to happen.  To do that I want to bring to bear a few different metaphors in which to consider the questions posed above.

The first is about a marriage where the couple fights with some frequency.  Is the marriage doomed or might it be saved?  The following paragraph is from a post I wrote several years ago called Measurement Without A Cause.  It makes reference to an essay that Arthur C. Brooks wrote called Bipartisanship Isn't for Wimps, After All

From polarization Brooks moves onto contempt.  Readers of Malcolm Gladwell's book Blink will recall that contempt is discussed in the very first chapter, where the work of the psychologist John Gottman is taken up and his ability to predict from quick observation of a couple whether their marriage is in trouble or not. The telltale sign occurs when one of them rolls their eyeballs.  It is a sure giveaway that the relationship is doomed.  Once a level of contempt has been reached, there is no coming back from the dead.  So on the one hand, I think Brooks is right here that if bipartisanship is ever to be restored that there needs to be tolerance for alternative views.  Indeed, if you take a look at my recent post, Might it be possible to restore majority rule in Congress?, which was about getting rid of the Hastert rule and restoring a bipartisan majority in the House, with collegiality restored as the mode of discourse to support that, I am certainly on the side of promoting tolerance as a search to finding where the center is.

In Cohen's piece there is mention of Liberal complacency as one of the primary causes of discord.  Is that complacency similar to or perhaps identical to the contempt discussed in the paragraph above?  If Facebook is any indicator, many people feel this way now, with a lot of venting of frustration in status updates and comments, though I think it fair to say that plenty of Conservatives are also complacent and illustrate that with their own off putting comments.  We are in a vicious cycle of tit-for-tat that needs to end.  But how will that happen?  Respectful argument, where the parties disagree while acknowledging the position of the other and accounting for it in the articulation of their own opinion, is a challenge to reach.  In contrast, the ad hominem is all too easy, which is why we seem to observe it so frequently. 

The next metaphor comes from the book The Economic Consequences of Peace, by John Maynard Keynes.  I confess that I haven't read that book, but I am aware of the argument and I want to make sure others are aware of the argument as well.  Keynes felt that the Treaty of Versailles was far too punitive, with overly harsh reparations that would limit Germany's ability to recover from the war, and thus breed additional resentment.  Keynes prediction was spot on. We all know the history after that.

Why is this relevant?  We are considering what will happen at or around the time that President Trump and his close circle get implicated in the Russian involvement in the election of 2016.  Most likely this will happen when the Senate concludes its investigation into the matter.  Until this time there will be no "peace" to be made.  Cohen asserts that among Trump supporters there are many decent and anxious people.  Let's say that's true.  Those people will almost surely feel remorse for having supported Trump in the first place, if Trump were implicated by this investigation.  While it would be unfair to pin the Russian connection on them, as there weren't sufficient revelations about it early enough to matter, there was other publicly available information that is pretty damning.  The misdeeds include Trump's pronouncements on birtherism, the various lawsuits that arose against the now defunct Trump University, Trump's bragging about groping women, and his refusal as candidate and now as President to release his tax returns.

If you query any voter and ask whether character is an important attribute in selecting a President, undoubtedly the voter will respond that character is very important.  Yet Trump supporters gave him a pass on the character issue.  (This was as much the case during the Republican primaries as it was during the general election, so the entire story here can't be that these voters thought Hilary Clinton's character was suspect.)  At best, this was a calculated mistake by the voters.  At worst, it was willful ignorance.  In either case, these voters will have to atone for the choice they made.  I don't know what would count as a meaningful act of atonement.  That is something to consider further.  What I do want to argue here is that Democratic voters shouldn't demand a draconian punishment as atonement.  That would only exacerbate the cycle of tit-for-tat.  People need to see the error in seeking revenge in this manner.

The last metaphor combines the availability heuristic - what we easily can recall from memory we deem to be likely, what we have difficulty recalling we deem unlikely - with the cash-register-at-the-supermarket approach to marketing - the good stuff that you want to buy is deep into the store while at the cash register you find candy and tabloids.   Those items at the cash register aren't on your shopping list. They are bought on impulse at the time of purchase.   In the wake of Roger Ailes recent passing, there has been much written about him.  He applied these ideas to politics, making Fox news a wildly successful business venture because of all the eyeballs it attracted, while simultaneously making it a propaganda machine par excellence.  As Jill Lepore's latest shows, these ideas are not new.  Propaganda of this sort was a big part of the history of the 1930s and 1940s.  What is different now, however, is the source of the propaganda.   Then it was government agencies doing it.  Now it is private news organizations.

In my entire living memory there has always been a tabloid press.   The National Enquirer was founded in 1926, for example.  But the idea of mainstream news outlets operating in tabloid form is comparatively new, at least in recent memory.  (I do recall learning about William Randolph Hearst and yellow journalism as a primary cause of the Spanish-American War, but that was ancient history when I was growing up.)  Further, as the audience has drifted from print news to news on TV (or video over the Internet) where switching a channel is such an easy thing to do for anyone in the audience, there is a business imperative to make the news programming grab the viewer's attention.  This pushes the programming into the realm of the sensational, making it fever pitched, but then surely less educational.  The appeal is more emotional than intellectual.  That much applies to MSNBC as well as to Fox, even if on the fake news front Fox outdoes its would be competitor.

Fever pitched and heavily slanted news obviously creates a problem if the goal is to end the tit-for-tat.  The current tabloid news programming clearly encourages the tit-for-tat in its viewers, putting them in a constant state of mind to take umbrage at the latest offense.  Social media posts based on the tabloid news do likewise.  How can we get past all this negative reinforcement?  I wish I had a good answer to that question, but I don't.  What I can offer is much more modest.  At least we can get to the first step toward a solution, which is recognizing that there is a problem.

Now I want to switch gears and take an historical approach, focusing on two different eras in our history.  I will start with the more recent one, the U.S. in 2005, a dozen years ago, more or less.  It is an interesting time to consider from an economic perspective.  The burst of the housing bubble was still a few years off.  The economy had come out of recession and indeed growth in per capita GDP was at a cyclical peak.   But a closer look reveals something troubling about this observation.  That peak (measured in percentage terms) was only half of the peaks attained under both the Reagan and the Clinton Presidencies.  The economy was growing but not as fast as it grew earlier.   And this was well after the Bush tax cuts had been put into effect.

A different look, at the personal saving rate, is also troubling.  It reached a trough around then, somewhere below 2.5%.  This means that private saving was hardly happening.  The bulk of disposable income was devoted to consumption.  If you unpack this more, what you will find is that many Americans were dissaving, meaning they were borrowing, not to finance investment but to attain consumption in excess of income.  They were doing this in an unsustainable way.  You can understand the mindset.  A keeping up with the Joneses mentality encouraged households to raise there consumption profiles over time even as their incomes were flat.   That consumption would rise over time had been the pattern since the end of WW II.  But after the burst of the bubble good jobs were increasingly hard to come by and that continued even as the economy improved.  Manufacturing had already been in decline for some time.  It wasn't just manufacturing, however.  Other jobs were being off-shored regularly, and automation in the form of robots and artificial intelligence was eliminating so-called skilled jobs in a variety of areas.  Yet people had ready access to credit, even if that was with credit cards that charged usurious interest rates, so people who didn't pay off their balances at the end of the month were prone to get into a bigger hole the next month. 

In other words, back in 2005 it was already evident that the system wasn't working well for many people.  And this is before the economy tanked.  Trump may not be a legitimate President in the eyes of many (including me) but the grievance that Trump voters have and hence their desire to disrupt the system, that surely is legitimate.   As we are seeing now, disruption per se is likely not the answer.  There needs to be a sensible plan enacted that actually will improve the lives of ordinary voters.  Difference in political and economic philosophy might create differences in views as to what that plan should be.  But surely we can agree this should be the goal.

Now I want to go to an earlier period in our history, to the Vietnam War and the years immediately preceding them.  Ken Burns and Lynn Novick had an Op-Ed over the weekend, Vietnam's Unhealed Wounds.  It was a reminder to me about what an enormous shadow that experience cast on the national psyche, one that endures even now.  Yet the focus in that piece was on those who participated directly.  The soldiers and the citizens of Vietnam bore a horrible burden.  It was a devastating war.  But it was also devastating for those at home, for it divided America.  Ironically, it was also perhaps the first experience for many to have complete distrust in the government.  Then it was the left (anti-war folks) who believed the government was not credible, because the war made no sense, and because official pronouncements about the war were often false.  It sewed the seeds for many years later, where distrust in government became a major theme of the right.

Of course it wasn't that simple.  The hippees and the counterculture were emblematic of many things - long hair, marijuana and other drugs, rock music, and a broader distrust of authority, in addition to being against the war.  Those who thought patriotism meant being for the war were against all of this.  So, America love it or leave it pitted the hard hats against the youth who were solidly anti-war. This was America divided and it was obvious to everyone, regardless of which side of the divide you were on.

I wish I had an adult sense of what it was like before Vietnam, but I don't.  I was eight years old when President Kennedy was shot.  You can do the arithmetic for my age during Eisenhower's second term.  But I do have some experiences that give some sensibility of what that time was like, for my family if not for the country as a whole. My dad, who had about an hour commute to and from work, read the newspaper while he was riding the subway into Manhattan and on his way home, then again after dinner.  My mom did not read the newspaper and showed no interest in the news.  We didn't always have family dinner but when we did, politics wouldn't be a topic of conversation, as it wasn't a common interest.  Thus my dad largely kept his ideas about politics to himself, except when it was time to vote.  My mom would follow his instructions then.  (He was an FDR Democrat and my mom was comfortable with that.)

Yet there is a strong intuition that we were far more united as a country prior to Vietnam.  For me, much of this comes from TV.  Consider the shows, Ozzie and Harriet, Leave It to Beaver, Donna Reed, and Father Knows Best.  Caspar Milquetoast all, at least by current standards, if we were all watching this stuff, how different could we be?  This continued on into the next generation of programs, Gilligan's Island, Petticoat Junction, I Dream of Jeannie, and Get Smart.  Of course, there was more edgy stuff, not on TV but in writing.  Jack Kerouac wrote On The Road.  The copyright is 1959.  I read that in college, probably 1974 or 1975.  Joseph Heller wrote Catch-22. The original copyright is 1955, but it took a decade to catch on, maybe longer.  I don't know when I read it, but I am quite sure I read it on my own, not part of any class.  The same is true for On The Road. To Kill a Mockingbird was different.  We did read that in school, although I have no recollection as to when.  The original copyright is 1960.  The point is that there was definitely some edginess, even before Vietnam.  What I can't say is how prominent it was.  I don't know that.   I suspect in families like mine, it wasn't that big of a deal.

There is something else that should be mentioned here.  The Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act happened at around the same time as Vietnam.  Both of those were clearly divisive, but one can make strong ethical arguments in favor of civil rights and against segregation.  So, with the wisdom of hindsight, one wonders if America could have tackled either Vietnam or civil rights.  But taken together they were too much, the straw that broke the camel's back, if you will.  I don't know that it is true.  Yet if you watch Bryan Cranston as Lyndon Johnson in All the Way, Vietnam was not an ethical war from the very get go.  (In other words, the Domino Theory was a red herring.) It was LBJ's response to a critique from Barry Goldwater.  Johnson was afraid of appearing weak and being criticized from his right flank for that.  Given the outcome of the 1964 election, which ended up a landslide, this was a terrible miscalculation by Johnson.  We have known division in our national politics since the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution.  People who look at the 1950s, will point to the McCarthy era and that division was evident then.  I don't doubt that.  But I wonder if it were still present after McCarthy was out of the picture.  My suspicion is that we were far more unified in the aftermath.  And we would have stayed far more unified, had we not escalated the war in Vietnam.

* * * * *

Having spent much of this post talking about social divide, I want to turn to love of country and consider what that means.  But rather than simply make rhetorical points, I want to talk about a different love first, something where I have experiential knowledge so can talk with confidence based on that.  Then I will try to bring it back around to love of country as most people understand that expression.

The first half of my university career I spent as an academic economist.  My circle of colleagues was rather small, mainly fellow economists.  And for the first decade or so the Econ department itself was divided politically - though the divisions had nothing to do with national politics and everything to do with different sub-disciplines in the field.  After I made the switch to learning technology my circle expanded greatly.  I found joy in schmoozing with people who had different backgrounds.  And I developed fondness for many of them.  I wrote about this about a decade ago in a post called Affection.

Perhaps ironically, the sense of collegiality I felt for people I knew in the profession co-existed with an increasing disillusionment with the profession itself.  I thought it was headed in the wrong direction and I regularly articulated my criticism of the profession.  For example, consider this post Thoughts from ELI, which scolded the conference organizers of that event and this follow up post Learning Technology and "The Vision Thing", which articulated my preferred alternative based on the notion that the technology itself should be largely invisible.  So on the one hand I had this admiration and respect for the people I interacted with, many of whom became my good friends, while on the other hand I was not a true believer and became less and less enamored with the mission we in learning technology seemed to be pursuing.  Or, to put it another way, I became convinced that the great results innovators and early adopters of the technology achieved did not generalize to majority adopters.  It was the energy and insight that people brought to the endeavor rather than the technology itself that really mattered.  So our efforts to make the majority embrace the technology were misguided.

When I first became aware of the importance of collegiality to me in learning technology, I thought its basis was shared experiences with colleagues.  So, for example, I became very friendly with members of the CIC Learning Technology Group.  (The CIC is now called the Big Ten Academic Alliance.) The members of this group were my counterparts at the various campuses that were CIC members.  You might have thought there would be some competition among us, but there was none of that.  We were remarkably open.  And while we did have a formal agenda at our meetings, the real joy happened at dinner the night before, where we could unbridle ourselves and discuss the issues that were eating at us with peers who could appreciate the situation and maybe shed some light on it.

I had a similar sort of bonding with my cohort at the Frye Leadership Institute, which I attended for two weeks in 2003.  (That is now called the Leading Change Institute.)  It was a very intensive experience and I recall at the closing reception saying it was the closest thing I had experienced since my undergraduate days at Cornell to what collegiality is really like.  Frye made a strong impression on me in many ways, although I was pretty far along in my career by the time I attended Frye. One effect it had on me was to emphasize a sense of responsibility that I owed to the profession, namely to shepherd more junior people into the fold.

As it turns out, this was remarkably easy to do and really didn't require much effort.  I would meet the junior person in one context perhaps by happenstance, for example at the Educause national conference in some meeting organized by a vendor, and recognize the person really should be part of the CIC Learning Technology Group.  I would encourage that by sending an email to the group chair about it.  At the next meeting, lo and behold, the junior person was in attendance.  Or, in other cases, some of my colleagues at other universities would encourage their junior colleagues to attend our meetings and I would make it a point to sit next to them and engage them in conversation, so they could feel they were part of the group from the get go.  These are very small things, but they did matter.

And what I came to realize is that I had affection for these junior people before I ever met them.  It was their potential to bring energy and new ideas to the table plus for me it was a supply of new colleagues to engage in conversation.  In this way my sense of collegiality had a scope far broader than my actual experience.

For the last several weeks, maybe longer, I have been wondering whether these same sort of feelings might exist on a far grander scale, and then serve as the Bonds of Nationality that Albion Small describes so well in this seminal essay.   In particular, could these feelings extend to to those decent and anxious Trump supporters whom Cohen writes about?  Here's a little hypothetical I want to offer up.  I sit down with one such person over coffee at a neutral place where none of the other patrons recognize us, so even though we're in a public place the conversation is private.  We are both aware of the need to respect the other at the outset as well as that the task ahead of us is awkward.  Do we warm up to each other after 15 minutes or so?  Can we then have an open and honest conversation after that?   Suppose we can and that we actually find the discussion enjoyable.  We then agree to have a follow up conversation in which we we will try to negotiate a peace, one that we won't try to impose on others.  It's just for ourselves to see if we can make progress that way.

This possibility may be a pipe-dream only. Yet I find it intriguing.  It would make my own love of country derive from a belief that I can express warm feelings for its citizens.  I believe that some feelings of this sort are necessary.  Growing up, it seemed patriotism was instilled via rituals - reciting the Pledge of Allegiance, the singing of the national anthem, watching big time sporting events like the World Series and the Super Bowl.  These were common experiences.  Whether they were ever sufficient to make us all feel American, I don't know.  But it seems clear that these things aren't sufficient now to bind us together, to make E Pluribus Unum a reality.  We are too aware of our differences.  We must find other ways of binding that are more compelling and that acknowledge those differences that will remain rather than blur into oblivion.

In a compelling essay by Philip Roth, which is a reprise of a speech he gave back in 2002, he talks of his own sense of being American as a teen, while living in a Jewish working class section of Newark New Jersey, the locale that in one way provided his entire universe.  But he was a bookish kid and thereby was able to get a sense of America beyond his own direct experience through the fiction he read.  Roth read a variety of great American writers from the first half of the 20th century.  It was his reading that gave Roth a sense of being American, knowledge of the country as a whole, rather than merely an occupant of his own little niche.  There were many tensions in America while Roth was coming of age.  Being a proud American did not mean putting on rose-colored glasses about the America where one lives.  But these tensions were part of a dynamism, which itself was part of the American story.  There was confidence that things would get better, even if they never would be perfect.

We are not a nation of readers and weren't when Roth was growing up.  We need a different way for each of us to feel we're American and have a real sense of the whole of our country, well beyond our own direct experience.  The imagined conversation that I described was meant to be an emblem for other imagined conversations between different participants with varying backgrounds.  The collection of such imagined conversations might give us a sense of America as a whole

In my prior post, The Next Deal, I argued for a politics based on the individual voter's sense of social conscience and a felt need to express social responsibility.  Connecting that to this post, love of country is requisite for social conscience.  It is far too easy to castigate others we don't agree with, which is what's happening now and why we seem so divided.  If Liberals and Trump supporters could both recognize love of country in the other, it would offer a good place to start for our nation to heal.  I don't believe we can do that till the current moment has passed.  But I do think we should imagine this possibility now.  Doing so will give us hope.

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