I don’t think I have ever seen so many handsome and lovely TV field reporters running around with their mikes at arms length, their customized face masks well in place, their manners barely under control. Most of them seem to be asking the same damned question of everyone, “Have you ever seen this country so divided?”
Of course, the answer is always a mournful “No,” and a grim, sad awareness that things just aren’t the way they used to be. We’re divided for sure, and this time it could break us into little pieces and smash us into the mud.
One of the first lessons of journalism (and I know because I was a journalist for a long, long time) was to be careful about the kinds of questions you asked. If you already knew what the answer was going to be, you should probably have thought up a better question. Short of that, you were just going to toss another log onto whatever fire it was you went out there to examine.
Right now, we are in the “Ohmigawd are we divided!” part of the cycle. But this will pass. A couple of months without raging political rhetoric and the sense that the nation was being led by some kind of pestilent fat boy with a foolish tweeting habit and the personality of a stoat and things will change.
I know that because we are not bad people. We just tend to dwell on the wrong things at just the wrong time. Do you really think it is in our nature to agree about things? Not in my life time, not at home, not at work, not at university, not much of anyplace. People are always disagreeing. It’s a natural state. It is not dangerous. It is not damage.
It’s just disagreement. And how you approach that is all about how to ask the right question. What you want to ask is not, “Have you ever seen the nation this divided?” No, it would be better to ask people how they would have felt in the months before the Civil War, when everyone knew something awful was coming, but they just couldn’t imagine its shape.
Sometimes, the timing of the question is very important. You have a family in its collective pajamas standing in front of the burning house they just escaped. You’re going to say to them, “Geeze, your house is burning down. That must feel pretty bad, huh?”
For sure. A couple of weeks later (assuming no one was killed or injured) in many cases an insurance agent would come along, stamp a document with “totally destroyed” and start the process to build a new house. I have seen that happen many times in my career. You can see it in statistics, too. Floods on the Mississippi only seem awful when people are being swept down the river and their houses are collapsing in the background. Go to the Federal Reserve Bank records to find out what happened then and you see what amounts to a housing boom, full employment, booming retail sales, all a consequence of a river that ripped over its banks and wrecked much of what people built alongside of it.
I am beginning to think of the presidential election, finally just ending, in that same context. We have asked all the wrong questions at the wrong time, and persist at this when we wring our hands and moan about divisiveness and how people have never been further apart.
That’s bullshit, too.
I grew up in a declining railroad town in Pennsylvania where it was very clear where the money stopped. You could see it in the state of people’s houses. When everyone was getting regular paychecks, things got painted and maintained. But when that stopped, like when the railroad went bankrupt and 40,000 people lost the jobs that had finally boosted them well into the middle class, everything started to slide like a loose hillside after a week of rain. It doesn’t take long for a place that looked quite comfortable to look very bad. A few years of no maintenance and no money and no jobs will do that.
But that would not have been the right time to go in and ask folks how things were going, because they were going badly. A couple of years pass, a resourceful community finds a new way, and things look optimistic again.
You could basically drive a stake through the heart of Democracy based on what President Trump and his backers did over the past few years. But I don’t think the damage is permanent, or lasting in any way that will matter over the long term.
What matters in America, always, is how you are just now, not so much how you were just yesterday. We live immediate lives. You have income or you don’t.
The real dividing line in the county isn’t between Trumpian Republicans and the rest of us. It’s between those of us who have always known where the next meal, house, car, vacation, whatever, was coming from and those who literally didn’t have a pot to piss in.
That’s right, it’s that old money thing again.
Show me poverty and I will show you trouble. So me abject poverty and I will show you hopelessness and the sense that the nation is headed straight to hell. If that bothers you, and it certainly should, do something about poverty.
That remains our big problem, poverty. Not the left and right of politics or the rhetoric of Trump people versus Democrats.
Democrat, Republican, Trump backer or not, none of that actually matters. What actually matters is do you have your stuff lined up well enough that tomorrow isn’t much of a worry, no matter what happens?
As long as lots of people can answer “Yes” to that question, we will press on as America, with its goal being to add more people to the “yes” column.
Haves. Have nots. It’s an old story, but one as viable today as it has ever been.