The other day, I gave another driver the finger. He had sped up so he could cut me off as we were merging. For a moment we were deadly enemies. When I play racquetball, I focus on beating my partner. I want him to lose, so I can win.
Most of the time we spend in our cars, we share the road with many drivers moving in the same direction. Most of the time, my racquetball partner and I hope for the best for each other. Moments of conflict and opposition represent special circumstances, not normal life.
You wouldn’t know that from the media. Television especially concentrates on conflict – defeating opponents or arguing with friends on reality shows, encouraging politicians to criticize other politicians’ ideas, playing up athletic contests. Even cooking is portrayed as competition. In the TV model, life is a zero-sum game: for every winner, there is a loser.
Human happiness never grows, it just gets shifted around. So get out there and fight everyone else for your share.
The media feasts on confrontation, but that diet is not healthy for us. Anger raises our social blood pressure, but solves no problems. In fact, we constantly meet situations which prove that human happiness can increase. Just give a child some praise, share something with a friend or stranger, help someone in need. Everyone walks away feeling better.
I believe that as a society we are moving away from a desire to solve problems cooperatively toward a single-minded motivation to defeat opponents. Political conflict has spread into “culture wars,” in which other people’s choice of newspaper or dinner beverage, or their attitude toward recycling or marriage makes them our enemy. Science is no longer a set of questions to discover more about, but another club with which to beat opponents over the head. If the facts seem to favor my opponent’s arguments, I’ll just deny them.
Truth becomes a mere tactic, rather than a goal.
When President Obama speaks, the Republican goal is find some phrase which can be turned to their advantage, rather than to think about whether his policy suggestions might work.
I was startled when Rush Limbaugh said right after Obama’s inauguration that he hoped Obama’s effort to promote economic recovery would fail. Would he rather have people continue to suffer than see a liberal be successful? It turns out that Limbaugh was only expressing a spreading political model – fixing problems is not our goal, it’s defeating the hated enemy, which means other Americans. That’s the essence of partisanship.
I don’t mean that we should stop criticizing the ideas of people with whom we disagree. We need to stop demonizing the opposition. I think the tea partiers are wrong about liberals. I think Sarah Palin is uneducated about difficult political issues. But I don’t think they are bad Americans. We should be able to debate the facts and argue policies without calling each other traitors or anti-American. If they offer an idea with potential, I need to be able to say “bravo!”
For politicians electoral contests may be a zero-sum game – if one wins, the other loses. But for the rest of us, political polices might make all our lives better. If oil spills can be prevented by better regulation or banks can be stopped from risky games with our money, we are all winners. We can resist the media effort to make our lives into a game of “Survivor.”
The extreme partisanship which characterizes our conversations about national issues is making America a worse place to live. I didn’t feel good about yelling at that other driver and he’s not any less likely to cut off his next automotive adversary.
We are giving in to our baser instincts, encouraged by self-indulgent politicians and a cynical media. If we recognize what we have in common, we might be more able to find solutions to our common problems.
Mr. Hochstadt is professor of history at Illinois College in Jacksonville, Illinois, and author of Sources of the Holocaust (Palgrave, 2004) and Shanghai-Geschichten: Die jüdische Flucht nach China (Berlin: Hentrich und Hentrich, 2007).