Separation Anxiety

"Before I built a wall I'd ask to know

What I was walling in or walling out,

And to whom I was like to give offense.

Something there is that doesn't love a wall,

That wants it down."

-- Robert Frost

How we've disengaged from one another.

Take Ricardo Deforest, for example. The Tampa, Fla., resident told National Public Radio last fall, "I hate to say it because family is everything," yet, "I disowned them. In my mind they're not family anymore."

The steelworker, in his 60s, said those on the political left "They sold our country out. This election is about the soul of what America is. You can't be a free country and be a socialist state at the same time." The acrimony Deforest said he feels from what he calls "hardcore Trump haters" was as much a factor in his decision to cut them off as the differences that gave rise to it.

The Pew Research Center has reported that political polarization is more intense now than at any point in modern history. Nearly 80 percent of Americans now have "just a few" or no friends at all across the aisle. The animosity goes both ways.

A friend in Kentucky told me a while back, "Twenty or 30 years ago, as a young adult, it was motivating and invigorating to connect with somebody who might have a little different political view, and you’d talk about it and it didn’t separate you as people. The good we did do was we helped people learn to dialogue. That really helped us. We all need that. I know something has to change to change the horrible destructive political position we're in."

Even our common spaces have been disrupted. Neighbors aren't even listed in the phone book together anymore.

How did it get this bad?

A fascinating article in The New York Times about partisan segregation, as revealed by voting maps, is frighteningly revealing in how divided we've become in this country.

"Democrats and Republicans live apart from each other, down to the neighborhood, to a degree that raises provocative questions about how closely lifestyle preferences have become aligned with politics and how even neighbors may influence one another, " says the analysis on The Upshot. " As new research has found, it’s not just that many voters live in neighborhoods with few members of the opposite party; it’s that nearly all American voters live in communities where they are less likely to encounter people with opposing politics than we’d expect. That means, for example, that in a neighborhood where Democrats make up 60 percent of the voters, only 50 percent of a Republican’s nearest neighbors might be Democrats."

This seems just another degree of separation in our fragmented nation, the name of which -- United States -- has become increasingly a misnomer.

The partisan divides exist even as we keep zooming into voting data within metro areas, within counties, even within Zip Codes, with Democrats and Republicans effectively segregated from each other, say Harvard researchers Jacob Brown and Ryan Enos. And it's been getting worse.

I recall a conversation years ago with a Congregational minister in which he described how a few decades back, people would come together to worship in their town with their neighbors according to their religion and their denomination every week, but how he'd seen that change.

Increasingly, he said, congregants would travel 5, 10, 15 miles across town boundaries to attend the house of worship that felt most comfortable to them, to hear the message closest to what they wanted to hear, that fit their personal bias. In some cases, that meant abandoning mainstream churches entirely and heading to more extreme, fundamentalist churches.

That shouldn't have surprised me. We've also watched as wide-circulation magazines like Life and Look, the Saturday Evening Post and Time or Newsweek, all of which dominated when I was growing up, gave way to niche publications, just as Walter Cronkite and the Huntley-Brinkley Report on the main networks gave way to CNN, Fox, MS-NBC and Breitbart.

(We don't even seem to inhabit the same phone book anymore with our neighbors. When do we ever come together?)

We get our news from different sources, we get our information and misinformation increasingly from social media sites whose algorithms lead us to and feed us the extreme positions that match our predisposed biases. We seem to have entirely different sets of facts, entirely different realities that wer're responding to.

With a concerted effort by Republicans (and yes, trying to avoid emphasis on false equivalencies) beginning with the likes of Karl Rove, Lee Atwater, Fran Lutz and Roger Ailes, to mine culture wars for political advantage, the Balkanization has been exacerbated by Rupert Murdoch, Roger Ailes, Rush Limbaugh and other talk show hosts for whom provoking discord with far less regard to truth than to ratings has cleft not only the political consensus but also our society to a dangerous level of fragmentation that once only our autocratic enemies could love.

In recent years, those forces focused on building a wall at the southern border, but in truth, even more damaging were the non-physical walls that were put in place between our people.

Thanks to bots and cyber-trickery, which are only bound to worsen, we have to become more aware of when we're being played as pawns to fit someone else's power grab.

The push toward fragmentation is so extreme that now it seems that even COVID has become a point of contention. And social media has allowed because extremists to grab a level of attention that far surpasses what they they have known or deserve, that creates another stress on a stable consensus.

All of this fragmentation of and polarization not only creates enormous stress on friendships, on families, on the political process, and on our daily interactions in a democracy, which depends on compromise . Obviously, at the end of the day, the one person in the room with the broadest grin is Vladimir Putin, whose aim has been to diminish social cohesion so that his nation can be the last standing.

But ultimately, it also creates an enormous distraction in the face of a genuine, no-agreement-necessary extistential threat to us all: the need to address climate change immediately, if not sooner. We can't stay in our bubbles and refuse compromise, or to ignore truth.

How do we end the deep and growing divisions? Unfortunately, there are no easy answers. But there is a path.

It calls for a return to civility, and end to our underlying cynicism about what we can and need to do by working together. And acknowledging that approaching the real world's problems with a battle strategy mentality, rather than as challenges we all share, is a zero-sum game.

With sincere curiosity about our differences, we can learn to appreciate one another again. Because the problems that confront us demand it.


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