Are Americans truly divided into "blue" and "red" states, and "blue" and "red" communities within states? Are we really so fundamentally different that we are incapable of agreement on core values and precepts? Do most of us view political disagreements with our neighbors as a blood sport?
Most Americans would answer these questions with a resounding NO. But these questions do not come up in national polls, mainly because it is in the interest of the pollsters, and the clients of the pollsters, to not ask them.
Along with the pursuit of fundraising dollars, the currency of politicians is issue identification, stratification, and division. By staking out positions on visible issues, either real or fabricated, with the help of political consultants and focus groups, politicians generate attention, momentum, and claims to leadership. The issues on which candidates build their campaigns are often geared toward mobilizing one’s base of key voting blocs and interest groups. This practice leads to the use of "wedge issues", which appeal to a politician's or candidate's "base" of voters, while driving a wedge between them and other groups of voters. Candidates commonly select them with an eye toward piecing together the right number of votes from various factions, marketing each issue and position in the targeted audience to cobble together a winning coalition of voters.
When politicians manipulate issues in this manner, voters develop animosities as well as preferences. This creates the impression that the electorate is divided, whether by "blue" and "red" characterizations, or by other metrics, such as urban versus rural, rich versus poor, labor versus business, one attitude toward classical morality versus another, one race or ethnicity versus another, and one region versus another. Among the issues that have been used in this manner in recent years are:
- immigration restrictions and rights of immigrants,
- gay / lesbian marriage and other rights,
- placement of the Ten Commandments on public property,
- tax cuts for upper-income Americans,
- flag burning,
- school prayer,
- affirmative action,
- gun control,
- stem-cell research,
- property rights versus eminent domain, and
- restricting the rights of consumers to bring lawsuits by vilifying lawyers.
The problems stemming from manipulation of these issues are two-fold. First, while each of these issues may have some place in the political discourse of the day, they are by no means the only issues about which Americans care deeply. Developing an agenda on this basis is usually a cynical attempt to divert national attention from other issues that matter more and which are much more troublesome for politicians. Second, positioning on these issues creates the illusion that they pose intractable dialectics, in terms presented by the politicians. Yet, there is common ground to be had.
Ideas / Solutions
It is time for a rebirth of basic principles and using those principles as a compass for long-term policies and practices. Government has the option, and, certainly, the ability, to cast aside the forces that detract from such an effort. Our shared principles and objectives must be re-integrated into popular culture.
The establishment of a unifying statement of national values is long overdue, and it should be a top priority of our leaders to establish one. Such an initiative has the potential to craft some common ground on key issues, and focus national attention on pursuing them. Our government can better serve the people when proactively crafting a Political Alchemy that responds to the core values and the objectives in which the positions are rooted. The values that our citizenry holds are much more unified than the positions that are used to hijack those values by reactively capitalizing on popular mood swings, media manipulation, and internecine battles over party politics. For example, most Americans would probably agree that all Americans are entitled to:
- a solid, affordable education;
- a meaningful job which pays enough to afford the cost of living, along with opportunities for economic self-sufficiency;
- a social safety net when we can't find work or are too old or too sick to work;
- protection from water contamination, solid waste, toxic waste, radioactive waste, air pollution, and other hazards to our immediate surroundings;
- health care to prevent illness and receive treatment when we are sick; and
- safety and security for individuals and communities which enable them to thrive as they pursue their livelihoods and family lives.
These values could be collectively called The Right To Quality Of Life. By agreeing on national values, beginning with this Right, we could begin narrowing the gap that divides us on many issues. Treating our national values the same way that a corporation treats its Mission, Vision, and Value Statements, our government could establish a filter through which each of its actions must be viewed. Although there are many issues that would not be covered by a statement of unified values, the issues which do fall within the boundaries should have high priority and be resolved in ways that conform to the stated values.
For example, the debate on reproductive rights will surely continue to rage on between those who believe in the "Right To Choose" and those who believe in the "Right To Life". But, both sides should be able to agree on the Right To Quality Of Life for all those who are born. In fact, it would be inconsistent for either side to suggest that there is not a social responsibility to afford quality of life protections to all those citizens who, by whatever path, become Americans.
Some might resist an effort to formulate national values on the grounds that values are often associated with ethics, which edge toward sounding like a back door to imposing religious values on a country which traditionally reveres its foundation in the separation between church and state. But that reasoning does not apply in this case. Rather than being a mechanism to impose the values of some on the lives of others, a common thread between each of the values stated above is that each one emphasizes opportunity for each person to achieve their own objectives and realize their own destiny. The Right To Quality Of Life is based on helping each American attain that which is important to them, in their own view, and help them satisfy their own wants and needs.
Legislative and regulatory attention can and should be placed on advancing, protecting, and enforcing that which is agreed upon as being among our core values. By doing so, our governmental institutions would become much more closely linked to their public purpose of serving the American people in ways that are most valuable to those paying the tax bills. Bills that conform to the stated national values could proceed with expedited procedures, while non-conforming bills would be subjected to the fullest procedural scrutiny of Congress. The gridlock, animosities, and disillusionment that is caused by fights on wedge issues and distraction issues would be minimized.
The bottom line is that fragmentation and division would be forced to take a back seat to collaboration toward commonly-held goals, and the institutions of government would make it Job One to serve those goals. Rather than politicians steering the populace toward division, the populace would steer their politicians toward working together.
The most important catalyst toward achieving this shift must be the WILL to do so. The electorate must communicate this desire, and the powers-that-be must have the courage and the character to respond accordingly, or face the consequences of not doing so.
By identifying what binds our social fabric rather than seeking ways to exploit our differences, Americans can return to a nation of red, white, and blue, rather than simply red versus blue.