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The Great Divide and the American Culture it Came From

Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash

This column is about politics with a twist—one part human nature, another part commercialization of the public space. What does that mean politically?

We constantly hear about the damage being done to America by the magnitude and depth of our political divide. Pew Research reckons that it began in the mid-1990s and picked up steam around 2010. (See a graphic portrayal here.) Length of time matters because we know, from both research and experience, that the longer something persists uninterrupted, the more difficult it is to change—even if benefits accrue from behaving differently.

Anyone who has tried to quit smoking or lose weight knows how hard it is to alter behavior. It is hard not to pick up a cigarette the first thing in the morning or to say no to a cheeseburger with fries for lunch.

One reason is that those behaviors are satisfying even though we know neither is good for our health. The same assertion applies to activities that harm public health. And contributing to ‘The Divide’ does just that.

Our future is at risk. For democracy to thrive, America needs more public mindfulness, respectfulness, and action to serve the greater good.

Behaviors are even harder to change when a commercial enterprise pushes us to engage in certain behaviors. The profit motive tells why.

Michael Moss’s brilliant book, Hooked, tells that story as it applies to the food industry. As one reviewer put it, Moss “describes how foods can be engineered to trigger the brain’s “on switch” (mostly the neurotransmitter, dopamine) and inhibit its “off switch” (a region called the prefrontal cortex).”

Companies and professionals work hard to keep us consuming in ways that suit their priorities. For example, it IS literally impossible “to eat just one Lay’s” (potato chip), as the tagline goes, largely because that chip was engineered through research to get us to eat a bunch, and then a bunch more.

It is not difficult to grasp that a company benefits when it gets us hooked on a product it is selling. But it is not as easy to accept when the same practice applies to the social sphere. It does, though.

Consider the message conveyed in the 2020 documentary, The Social Dilemma. Former insiders at Facebook, Google, and other social media and related companies talked about how those enterprises not only seek to get us addicted but that they also engage in practices designed to influence our behavior.

America is hooked just as much on a social platform like Facebook as it is on Lay’s Potato Chips. Worse, even. The thought of eating Lay’s three or more hours a day seems ludicrous. The thought of spending three or more hours a day on Facebook? Not so. And when something becomes a recurring feature of everyday life, it is not just a practice; it is a lifestyle.

There is more.

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While constantly feeding on Lay’s chips affects individual health, exacerbating ‘The Divide’ on Facebook and other social platforms affects public health. And when millions of people do the very same thing, ‘The Divide’ feeds on itself and grows wider, deeper, hotter.

It does so because millions of Americans devote considerable time to flipping through newsfeeds and posts, liking this, and commenting on or sharing that. They arrange their daily schedules to watch Tucker or Rachel or Don—media personalities to whom they refer by first name.

What I have just described represents enculturated behaviors in modern-day America. It is what many people do regularly, persistently, and in union with many others in their socio-political circle. It has become a lifestyle with repeated behaviors and—sadly—with a predictable result: it drives ‘The Divide.’

Those behaviors are extremely difficult to alter because the behavior is emotionally saturated and a source of enjoyment, satisfaction, and bonding. It is an especially tall order when those behaviors—as they often do—become a feature of a person’s public signature and, with that, their identity.

But it comes with a great cost. At risk is America’s future as a democracy. For democracy to flourish, America needs an upshift in public mindfulness, respectfulness, and actions that serve the greater good.

What we get instead is a partisan-driven battle for political supremacy. Partisans believe that actualizing their beliefs and preferences best serves America. But make no mistake about it: partisanship is always narrow, restricted, and bounded. It may be part of the answer—perhaps even a good share of the answer—but it is never complete.

How might we respond constructively? Well, we can:

  • Stop incendiary posting
  • Stop affirming others who do
  • Stop engaging with commercial enterprises that promote others as villains and ‘the problem.’

But, like so many things in life, progress is more than not doing something. It is very much about doing something. In this case, it is doing something—anything—that advances the greater good. I am talking about public work—not online work—that aligns with who you are, what you value, and is worth fighting for—irrespective of what others say or do.

The choice is ours, but it will not be easy to change. Too many Americans are hooked on behaviors that exacerbate ‘The Divide.’ How satisfying it is to align with a media personality as we call out ‘the other side,’ put ‘their’ stupidity on public display, and have family and friends cheer us on.

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Politically divided America is likely to stay that way—and it is likely to get worse—unless enough of us recognize how dangerous (to democracy) everyday life in America has become.

Frank Fear

You can listen to this essay on Frank Fear's podcast channel, Under the Radar with Host Frank Fear.