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Why do I believe America’s political divide is more than political? The path to that conclusion started in a curious way—through song lyrics.

doris day

You’ve no doubt heard the song, “Que Sera, Sera,” (What Will Be, Will Be). Written by Jay Livingston (music) and Ray Evans (lyrics) the song was introduced to the public by Doris Day in 1956. She sang it in the film, “The Man Who Knew Too Much.” An immediate hit, the song won an Oscar and is ranked among the top 200 songs of the 20th Century.

The song has had staying-power. In the last decade alone the YouTube video of Day’s film rendition has been downloaded nearly 21 million times. Watch it here:

It’s just a song. Right? That’s what I thought until I heard it again recently during my granddaughter’s dance recital. I realized that day that lyricist Evans had done something extraordinary: his lyrics are an ontological assertion:

“The future's not ours to see
What will be, will be.”

It’s a contested assertion, too.

  • The future is unpredictable. Circumstances beyond our control have a lot to do with determining our fate. Luck—both good and bad—plays a big role as well.
  • The future is ours to make. Life success involves perspiration, persistence, and assertiveness. What’s more, we (and others) land where we deserve to land.

Why are the lyrics of Que Sera, Sera relevant politically? Here’s one reason.

The Pew Research Center recently polled a national sample of Americans. Pew asked people what they believe contributes to life success. When data were analyzed by party affiliation the Pew researchers discovered sharp political differences.

Why is a person rich? Is it because he or sheworks harder in life? (Republicans, 66%, yes). Is it because he or she hashad advantages in life? (Democrats, 60%, yes). Nearly 70% of Republicans surveyed believe that a person became rich by working harder than other people. 70% of Democrats disagree.

Why is a person poor? Is it due to lack of effort? (Republicans, 56%, yes). Is it because circumstances are out of his or her control? (Democrats, 71%, yes).

How might we explain these differences?

Here’s one interpretation. It’s offered by Harvard economics professor, Sendhil Mullainathan, whose commentary was published recently in The New York Times. In it Mullainathan confronts what he calls “an overrepresentation” in one narrative about life success.

He writes: “In many autobiographies…even of fortunate people, born to rich, loving families…/protagonists/… look back on life and remember all the things that stood in their way” (emphasis added).

That’s an ego-serving and incomplete interpretation, Mullainathan asserts. “We play the starring role in our own life stories,” he asserts, “and those stories often revolve around struggle.”

What’s missing in the prevailing narrative? Mullainathan says it’s about getting a boost fromtailwinds. Tailwinds represent the people and circumstances that enable success. When I looked back on my life I found that, time and time again, the tailwinds came first and tackling headwinds followed.

The problem with a tailwinds interpretation is that it isn’t chest-thumping. It certainly doesn’t align with a chorus we heard repeatedly during Romney’s 2012 Presidential campaign, “WE BUILT IT!

The American commonwealth is at risk largely because we (as a country) haven’t invested sufficiently in the power of tailwinds.

We know Romney lost the election, but his anthem lives on as America’s preferred narrative of success—especially among elites. It glorifies individual achievement precisely in the way many Conservative respondents told Pew researchers. What’s more, institutions of all types propagate and sustain that narrative, including my own—higher education.

The narrative is in serious need of a Progressive alternative. Here’s one to consider.

The American commonwealth is at risk largely because we (as a country) haven’t invested sufficiently in the power of tailwinds. Mullainathan expresses the thought well: “If we work on creating more tailwinds — by giving poor children more advantages — we can solve many otherwise intractable problems.”

Who could disagree? Lots of Americans, that’s who.

They are major donors, board members, elected and appointed officials, and administrators of large-scale organizations (public, non-profit, and private).

They are affluent and connected.

They are doctors, lawyers, financiers, other high-income professionals, and lower-tier Wanna- Be’s who populate America’s institutional landscape.

They frame and enact national, state, and local policy.

They influence the composition and direction of public and non-profit programs.

What’s more, they’re family members, co-workers, and neighbors.

All of these people helped make Donald Trump president.

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So who, really, are these American Conservatives? And what contributes to their intransigence?

To gain perspective on those questions, let’s look at the recent work of Robert M. Sapolsky, professor of biology and neurology at Stanford University. Sapolsky’s most recent book, Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst, is relevant because he views two political orientations, Conservative and Liberal, through the lens of biology.

In Sapolsky’s view, political orientation “is but one manifestation of larger internal forces.” He argues we need to look ‘beyond politics’ to understand political preferences.

Sapolsky makes two bold claims. First, political orientation is connected to implicit factors that (in his words) “have little to do with specific political issues.” Second, it’s possible to attribute a biological basis to those underlying factors.

Let’s look at five factors.

Intelligence: There is a link between lower intelligence and “a subtype of conservatism,” viz., right-wing authoritarianism. How so? “RWA provides simple answers, ideal for people with poor abstract reasoning skills.”

Intellectual style: Conservatives are relatively uncomfortable with complexity. Liberals, on the other hand, have greater capacity for “integrative complexity,” that is, the capacity to cull multiple factors, integrate them, and come to a conclusion. Doing that requires “thinking harder.”

Moral cognition: Humans are guided by a moral compass when making right-wrong decisions. What settings are on that compass? Sapolsky identifies six: care, fairness, liberty, loyalty, authority, and sanctity. In terms of political orientation “both experimental and real-world data” reveal that Liberals prefer care, fairness, and liberty. Conservatives emphasize loyalty, authority, and sanctity.

Psychology: We know that humans vary in terms of their “emotional make up.” Are there variations in conjunction with political orientation? Yes, Sapolsky says. He writes: “Research consistently shows…on average…that Conservatives are made more anxious by ambiguity and have a stronger need for closure, dislike novelty, are more comforted by structure and hierarchy, more readily perceive circumstances as threating, and are more parochial in their empathy.”

Neurobiology: “Liberalism.” Sapolsky says, “has been associated with larger amounts of gray matter in the cirgulate cortex (with its involvement in empathy), whereas Conservatism has been associated with an enlarged amygdala (with its starring role in threat perception).”

To no surprise, then, we have Conservative policies/programs that emphasize national security through immigration restrictions and curtail health benefits for millions of Americans.

What can we do in response?

First of all, I don’t think it’s probable, even possible, to “Bridge the Divide” between Conservatives and those of us on the Left. The divide is too wide, too deep, and it’s more than political.

Yes, I believe we should continue resisting, but that’s not enough.

I believe we need to do what the Conservatives began doing over a half-century ago—that is, work to change the political landscape—substantially, extensively, and at its core. But also know that the Conservatives didn’t seek to change the governmental landscape alone. They sought change across all sectors.

The crisis they perceived back then was as much an institutional crisis as it was a public policy crisis. The same situation exists today—just in a very different way. In fact, today’s institutional crisis worries me as much, if not more, than the public policy crisis. The reason: institutions everywhere are in dire need of reform.

Progressive Priority #1 needs to be enabling tailwinds to blow with greater velocity and unabated persistence for Americans who, otherwise, will be left behind. We need to rebuild The Commonwealth. Every public policy official and institutional leader should be asking one question—and then focusing attention on answering that question: How can we best do that?

That task won’t be easily done. It won’t be a quick fix either. It will take long-term, concerted, and coordinated activism to make it happen.

How? Here’s what I was told over thirty years ago by a community organizer-turned-politician. (No, it wasn’t Barack Obama.)

He told me that we need to be forcefully persistent. Focus like a laser on what constitutes the public good. Then work forward tactically and strategically.

“Others” will try stopping you, each and every step of the way. Keep plowing ahead. Be unrelenting.

Don’t be seduced into thinking they’re collaborators and partners. They’ll co-opt you if you do. The outcome will be (at best) “Progressive lite.” You’ll lose precious time, opportunities, and credibility, too.

He concluded: Don’t waste your time pursuing other approaches. What I’ve described is the only way.

I didn’t take his advice. That’s not how you do community development, I thought. So, for the next thirty years, I worked on another frontier, namely, “Bridging the Divide.”

I wouldn’t say that I wasted thirty years of my life taking that approach. But I will say this: no matter how well that approach may have fit some circumstances—and it fit some circumstances well—it’s a bad fit in today’s environment.

Why? The political divide is more than political.

The Conservatives knew that decades ago. And they put in place a plan to change America to their liking. It worked. We’re living the outcome today.

In 2017, Trump and his cronies are the undeniable result of a long-term march toward socio-political hell that began in the early 1970s. The good news is this: the crisis they’ve created represents an opening for pursuing a radically new and different way—a Progressive way.


It’s our turn.

Frank Fear