Are We Two Nations?

Are We Two Nations? September 28, 2017

I remember that right after the Brexit vote there was a push for Texit. Some of my fellow Texans believed that we would be better off being separated from the United States. They wanted Texas to become its own nation. At the time Barack Obama was president and Donald Trump was the candidate the Republicans chose to try to replace him. Many individuals, such as yours truly, believe that this meant that the Democratic candidate – Hillary Clinton – was destined to be the next President. For a conservative in Texas, things could not be bleaker. Becoming separated from the United States looked all the more appealing.

But then Trump actually won. The tables were turned. Conservatives were rejoicing all over the land, and progressives woke up to a country that not only had Trump as president but also a Republican House and Senate. Many Democrats also began to realize for the first time that they had lost over 1,000 state and federal seats under President Obama. All of a sudden things could not be bleaker for a California liberal. Thus Calexit was born as becoming separated from the United States now looked all the more appealing.

Now I do not think anything will come of Texit or Calexit. I predict that neither movement will get much headwind. Texas and California are destined to stay part of the United States. But what do I know? I predicted a Clinton presidency. Given my past record, we might see the nations of Texas and California ten years from now.

But assuming I am correct and that both Texas and California stay part of the United States, is it safe to say that we will remain a single nation? More and more I am finding the answer to be yes and no. Yes, we would officially be a single nation with a single federal government, a single monetary system and a single military. But in our culture and in our identity, I believe that we are becoming two different societies distinct from one another to such a degree that we may be two nations living on the same land mass.

This is not a new observation. Books like the Big Sort have pieced out the differences we have acquired as we live among those who are culturally and politically similar to us. Our social media is geared to feed us stories that support our presuppositions and convince us that we are right and those who disagree with us are wrong or even evil. We can now listen to the “right” news shows to make sure that we get the news geared to our social and political assumptions. Those shows are also great sources for telling us who we should hate and who is the demon in our society. If there was ever a society geared up to promote two competing visions about reality, it is the “United” States today.

The colors red and blue have been appropriated to represent these competing visions. Red represents the conservative, traditional family-oriented religious culture that tends to dominate smaller towns, rural communities, the Midwest and the South. Blue represents the modernist, experimental families oriented, intellectually valued culture that tends to dominate the urban areas and both coasts. No need for me to reinvent the wheel so I will use them for the balance of this article.

I find myself in a position to appreciate both the Red and Blue competing visions. I live in academia and so I have been exposed to the Blue culture. I am also a conservative Christian who has been exposed to the Red culture. So I am sympathetic to the claims of both cultures. This does not mean that I see them as equally correct. There are issues where I feel more “Blue” and others where I feel more “Red.” You could say I am a hybrid of sorts.

But right now I do not want to argue about the merits of either side of the equation. Instead I only want to ask a simple question. That question is whether we as a society can deal with such cultural differences and maintain our national identity. A follow-up to that question is if we can do that, then how?

The short answer of course is that I do not know. There may have been a society that had two such disparate cultures in it and was able to do well, but I do not know of it. I do know that this is not simply about a difference of opinion. The members of both cultures truly hate each other. They see the other side as what is wrong in our society. The Blue culture hopes that with more secular individuals coming into our society they will be able to marginalize the Red culture as backwards and bigoted. Those in the Red culture often seek to stigmatize the Blue culture as rioters and “snowflakes.” I am certain that they would seek marginalization of the Blue culture if they got the opportunity to accomplish that.

So one way for us to survive is for one of the cultures to eradicate the other. I am certain that many of those reading these words would celebrate such an ending – as long as it was their culture that won. I think the Blue culture has the long-term advantage in the fight right now and so it may make a certain amount of sense for those in that culture to seek a fight to the end. But remember I am still the same person who predicted a Clinton victory. And the Red culture currently has more influence in all three branches of government than the Blue culture. You may not want to rely on my insight. The best possible alternative to destroying the other culture is to try to find a way we can live together.

I do not think that this two nation thing is going to work for much longer. Here is one way a divide of sorts may occur. California is already committing itself to not paying for its employees to travel to states that do not accept the Blue perspective on LGBT issues. A few more states and pretty soon the only place a state employee can travel to on the state’s dime will be the coastal states. Will those states eventually reciprocate and ban travel to California? Will other Blue states join California in its ban? If about half of the states ban travel to the other half of the states, then do we still have a country?

Let me be clear that I am not predicting the above scenario is inevitable. There are other ways whereby we can arrive at a type of impasse in our society. I just wanted to flesh out one possible path to show that it is not unreasonable to think that our two nation problem can get much worse. We can devolve into that marriage where the spouses do not love each other and are constantly angry with each other. We can find ourselves living in this country where we are in constant tension with each other. Are we already at that place in our society?

No I do not think we will have some type of shooting civil war. But some sort of cold war between the Red and Blue areas of our society is definitely a possibility whether it starts with the actions of California or not. As I stated above, I do not know of a fairly stable country with such animosity between two major cultural factions. I do not think that we in the United States have found the answer for how to keep a country with two nations together yet.

As I consider possible solutions to our culture divide, I am reminded of work I have done for racial reconciliation. Over time I have considered how the concept of active listening would revolutionize race relations. I have written about this with a challenge to engage in active listening to improve race relations. Maybe the same concepts can help us create a society where we can handle the Red and Blue cultures.

So let’s first define active listening. Active listening is when we listen for comprehension and understanding. We are not simply biding our time to make our next statement but are sincerely attempting to know what the other person is thinking. The evidence that we have actively listened is that we are able to rely back to the other person their ideas in our own words and do it in a way where they agree that we understand their concerns. Only after we adequately know those concerns and why a person has them will we be in a position to evaluate them. Unfortunately, in our polarized society we jump on ideas we do not trust even before we fully understand them. And that eagerness to engage in verbal combat before we even understand the perspectives of others is part of our cultural divide.

Part of my argument is that we need to understand the perspective of others. Guess what? I am not going to get accurate information about what those in the Blue culture want from Breitbart nor will I get accurate information about the Red culture from Occupy Democrats. But in our current social media environment, we go to our corners to get our marching orders from those who already agree with us. No wonder we do not want to live among the “heathens” after reading such dehumanizing information about them. It is much better if we can learn about others from their own mouths.

Try this. Pick an issue. Then find someone from the opposite culture. Next invite them to coffee/coke/lunch or arrange for a phone call. Then simply ask them what they think about that given issue. Listen to them and do not try to think of counterarguments while you listen. Remember that you do not have to agree with them. You are only trying to understand them. When they are done talking, then attempt to relay back to them what you heard in your own words. If you are correct, then you have actively listened. If you are not quite accurate, ask them questions until you understand where they are coming from. It takes practice. Whether the person you are with wants to listen to you is up to them. But now you understand a different perspective and practiced your active listening skills.

I do not think that this process has to stop with just having coffee or lunch with others. We can also use this as an opportunity to solve some of the problems between the Red and Blue teams. For example, right now there is a consistent argument on finding the balance between religious and sexual freedom. There are a lot of issues connected to this such as transgender bathrooms, businesses and same-sex unions, abortion and such. Most of the time, the two sides of the issue attempt to beat down the other side and win a total victory. I cannot help but think that in a lot of these issues, there are compromises that we can make which will provide both the Red and Blue team most of what they want. But in our eagerness we want to make sure that our side “wins.” Yet it is such “victories” that are tearing our country apart.

Rather if we commit to listening to each other more and learn about the perspective of others, then maybe we have a chance to make this two nation thing of ours work. If we are willing to make compromises so that we can have potential win-win situations a good deal of the time, we can learn what it is like to truly tolerate those with whom we disagree. I do not think I have to agree with everyone about everything. In fact, I agree with nobody about everything. I would like for us to live in a society where it is okay to disagree with others but still find workable solutions. But this will not happen until we learn how to listen and compromise.

The alternative is to refuse to learn the perspectives of other and go back to the sort of name-calling and demonizing that has become common, thus continuing our conflict. Maybe the Blue team will eventually win and drive the Red team underground. Maybe the Red team will pull a “Trump”, and the Blue team will have to go into hiding. What I do know is that it will not be pretty and a lot of pain is coming if we do not solve our two nation problem.

Let’s start our way out of the process in a small way. If you clearly identify with either the Red or Blue team, then I invite you to take my challenge to actively listen to a member of the other team. Then I challenge you to listen to the media of the other side but do so in a way to gain understanding. In other words, do not just argue back at the radio or online article. Finally, as issues come up, try to think about solutions that meet your goals (as long as those goals are not elimination of the other team) and the needs of those on the other side. It will take a long time to change our old habits of constantly seeing others as enemies, but I believe it is possible. We just have to start with some listening.

All of that assumes that we want to stop fighting. I fear many people really do not want to stop fighting. They somehow gain prestige or pleasure at demonizing those they disagree with. If we can change the norms of our society so that active listening, and not insulting the other “team” is what we value, then we can minimize the effect of such toxic individuals. Otherwise, those who want, and gain from, the cultural polarization in our society will continue to influence us and keep us fighting.

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  • Alan Drake

    I know several Francophone Swiss and have heard complaints about “Zurich Imperialism” as the German speaking Swiss have their way (73% German speaking ?) have their way in federal issues. A few decades ago an ancient canton split into French & German speaking cantons.

    One Swiss spoke of the initial bitterness, fear & resentment when German speaking Swiss soldiers took over the family barn & outbuildings a few km from the French border during WW I. But thus softened when they saw the “occupying” soldiers salute the Swiss flag every morning & helped with some farm chores.

    The Belgians are infamous for the hostility between the Dutch speaking & French speaking halves of their nation.

    And, of course the Catholic & Protestant Irish. Only the Quakers are neutral in that conflict. One is either a Catholic or Protestant atheist.

  • Karen Blackburn

    I have read your articles before and you make an awful lot of sense, but as an outsider (non-US) looking in I suspect you have a big problem ahead of you. The vast majority of citizens who seem to read these articles appear to be a)neurotic b)paranoid c)biased towards their belief only and nothing else d)unwilling to even consider listening to anyone who doesn’t share their opinion e)extremely offensive towards anyone who doesn’t share their opinion. Given this the chances that the population in general is roughly the same as the readers, especially those who need to be convinced, you have an uphill task ahead of you. Good luck, you are going to need it.

    • George Yancey

      I fear you are correct.