Contemporary American culture is truly a petri dish of ideals, norms and lifestyles. But our unique melange of diversity has recently given rise to cultural tribalism and political gridlock, effectively eroding our country’s foundational buttresses.
While fringe elements of extremism do exist, the modern American political spectrum is largely divided between conservatism and liberalism. Over the past four years, these rival political paradigms have waged total war upon each other via the media, the two-party system and government officials. The resulting incompatibility has left liberals and conservatives in a state of mutual suspicion and loathing that has coalesced into a state of 21st-century trench warfare.
Large media conglomerates are largely to blame for stoking the political polarization of our society. Privately owned and profit-driven, these entities are agenda-driven echo chambers that extol their views as righteous or moral while using vast resources to demonize and, in many cases, exterminate opposing views.
Media outlets on both the right on the left seek to reinforce confirmation biases by selectively (and conveniently) narrating facts on the ground. As a result, the consumer is conditioned not only to sympathize with the outlet’s content, but also to continue endorsing it.
The left-wing media frequently portrays law enforcement as either racist or intolerant towards minorities and socioeconomically disadvantaged people, while the right-wing media fails to put race relations in context by omitting historically systematic injustices that underlie today’s class struggles. By failing to provide wider context for news stories, these polarizing mechanisms reinforce self-serving biases while sowing further divisiveness.
The two-party system, comprising Democrats (liberals) and Republicans (conservatives), has more recently experienced a widening gap in perceptions and attitudes among the public regarding political values. In fact, a Pew Research Center study released Dec. 17 found that partisanship — not age, race, ethnic background or any other demographic indicators — remains the leading factor in guiding the American public’s political attitudes.
As such, Democratic and Republican politicians have become bitter, detached rivals who rarely work together on domestic issues. And when they do cross party lines to collaborate on legislation, these “mavericks” are oftentimes ostracized from their respective parties and voted out of office. Donning ideological lenses stifles healthy political discourse and often presupposes politically correct solutions. These paradigms promote tunnel vision, political pandering and forfeiture of independent thought.
The idea of civic breakdown in America today is more realistic than it was four years ago. President Donald Trump has arguably stoked partisan and racial sectarianism to a fever pitch never before seen in American politics. Despite his documented bigotry, disregard for the rule of law and near daily false claims (often espousing conspiracy theories), he contends he is being unfairly undermined by the Washington establishment.
This fraudulent rhetoric, especially from the most powerful office in the country, is troubling not only because it has led to unlawful violence and vigilante behavior, but also because it undermines the democratic system we live under. Conversely, his “law and order” platform ignores the pleas of the African American community, which has disproportionately borne the brunt of excessive police force, including the extralegal killing and maiming of African American men. And when pressed on the alarming frequency and proof of documented police brutality, he resorts to insensitive platitudes and outright denials.
As the political divide grows, so too do entrenched attitudes. We are all programmed to some degree by our diverse backgrounds and unique perspectives, yet no amount of dissimilarity should bar two members of the Sapiens species from finding common ground and establishing a more equitable way forward for all.
Big-media messaging, overzealous partisanship, and Trump’s intolerance are all cancers we can do without. The real focus should be on working in unison to hold our leaders accountable, maintaining a healthy dose of skepticism and challenging exclusively oriented paradigms. In doing so, we can minimize political and tribal polarization, preserve and encourage cooperation across party lines, and make compromise and legislative progress achievable.
A lifelong Central Illinoisan, Andrew Leonard is a voracious consumer of current events and has published works covering foreign policy and international politics.
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