We're a divided nation — that actually agrees on a lot
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I live in North Carolina's Research Triangle, home of the epic UNC-Duke basketball rivalry. The feud is fierce, and though many take the trash talk in strides, it fuels outbursts of anger, loss of friendships and heaping servings of erroneous claims on either side.

If you're a fan of the sport, it's hard to escape. As they say in my hometown of Durham: "My favorite team? Duke and anyone playing the University of North Carolina."

As far as I know, nobody has been killed over this rivalry. Or deported. And most of the world continues apace, largely undisturbed.

But the Duke-UNC basketball hostility provides a glimpse into a bigger problem: tribal thinking. It may be OK in basketball. In politics, it is a clear and present danger. And it hides a much bigger reality.

It's not novel to point out that with the election of President Trump, tribalism has reached new and dizzying heights — the "basket of deplorables" vs. "liberal elites." Many of us feel sickened. And we're right to worry.

Tribal thinking is not just inherently undemocratic — it's perilous. It threatens our civic culture. It precludes learning and understanding. Most significantly, tribalism prevents finding common ground because it rejects common decency. Even facts are under attack.

Our tribes are all about who fits and who doesn't. Us vs. Them. Republicans vs. Democrats. Grievances expressed as blame.

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Corporate and political elites know how to exploit such divisions when it serves their interests. Ordinary citizens, meanwhile, are ill-served by political labels. Democrats take African-Americans for granted; Republicans do likewise with Midwestern white farmers. Neither group gets much out of it. The labels organize, but they don't represent. Indeed, they fundamentally distort reality.

 

Whether terms of political description ever carried much meaning is debatable. Less debatable: Today, they do not.

Conservatives (who are supposed to conserve) advocate economic policies that incessantly change the world. Liberals (representing liberalization) now advocate regulation. Civil rights and environmental protection used to be Republican domains, white supremacy a mainstay of Democrats.

If all this is hard to follow, it's because it doesn't describe reality.

The thing is, tribal titles blind us to a still-existing "unacknowledged consensus," to an underground civic culture.

Fill a room with Tea Party followers, Occupy Wall Street activists and concerned middle-of-the-road citizens. Then, imagine a conversation about values and goals, but without any references to political labels or ideological catchwords (ObamaCare, racism, etc).

What would you get?

The answer? A room full of deep suspicion of concentrated power, be it corporate or governmental. A pervasive sense that politics no longer represents common citizens. A fear of accelerating out-of-control change. Misgivings about globalization. Agreement that we have a collective responsibility toward future generations.

Not least of all, a longing for belonging, for being part of a larger community with which one can identify, and within which one can feel safe.

All this is well-researched and documented.

One study found that nine out of 10 Americans, independent of party affiliation, would prefer radically less inequality. A clear majority favor a minimum wage doubled to $15. No one wants their tax dollars wasted, and only 19 percent trust their government.

Half of all Americans feel that corporations have too much influence, and only one-third see them as a "source of hope." Meanwhile, more than 70 percent recognize climate change.

A third party based on such commonsense civic understandings might win in a landslide.

Nations around the world are struggling with the same set of challenges — loss of traditional jobs; economic insecurity; existential threats ranging from climate change to terrorism; alienation from politics; loss of national identities.

None of these originated with the current president.

Historians are familiar with the most common response. We can call it "externalization"; blaming the other guy. Hunkering down, defending one's own position, even if it means building walls while tearing down other people. Creating an enemy — a "them" against "us."

All of it loses sight of our unacknowledged, hidden consensus.

This game is not new. The only difference today is that it is happening in broad daylight, with everybody watching. We should know about the consequences, for they are both clear and predictable: exclusion, conflict, more hatred.

In the end, there are no winners. The only way forward is building on what holds us together.

For every one of us, it comes down to a basic decision: participation in the old tribal game, or fierce resistance informed by our shared common humanity.

Dirk Philipsen teaches economic history at Duke University's Sanford School of Public Policy and is author, most recently, of "The Little Big Number: How GDP Came to Rule the World, and What to Do About It" (Princeton University Press, 2015).


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