Wednesday, October 29, 2008

The Split in America

Timothy Egan begins his Sunday Opinion column in the New York Times, “The Party of Yesterday”,, with the following description of the “nation’s brainiest cities…cities with the highest percentage of college graduates”: “These are vibrant, prosperous places where a knowledge economy and cool things to do after hours attract people from all over the country. Among the top 10 only two of those metro areas—Raleigh, N. C., and Lexington, Ky.—voted Republican in the 2004 presidential election.”

He continues, “This year, all 10 are likely to go Democratic. What’s more, with Colorado, New Hampshire and Virginia now trending blue, Republicans stand to lose the nation’s 10 best-educated states as well.” Going further he states that “Brainy cities have low divorce rates, low crime, high job creation, ethnic diversity and creative capitalism…They grow good people in smart cities.”

Although I don’t disagree with the conclusion that Egan reaches, that Republicans “blow off the smart cities” and the smart states which makes them “The Party of Yesterday”, I believe that there is a deeper cause behind this bifurcation. It seems to me that this separation is something that is being experienced worldwide and is connected with the spread of information.

Historically, we have seen that information spreads and its spread cannot be stopped. Nations and organizations and cultures can slow down the spread for a while but in the end the spread of information overcomes even the most restrictive of societies. The development of movable type allowed for the printing and dissemination of books and pamphlets to audiences never before reached and this resulted in societal upheavals like the Reformation, the Enlightenment, and Post-Modernity. As this and further innovations that allowed people to compare viewpoints and data that were kept isolated before, science grew and prospered along with many other fields of applied science and intellectual investigation. The Information Age is bringing the world to an even greater integration of thought as the spread of information reaches more and more corners of the globe.

Of course, this is not looked on favorably by many. The spread of information threatens ways of thinking, lifestyles, and people in power. The spread of information is disruptive and often brings with it an upheaval of ordinary life. The spread of information forces change!

Those in power that are threatened by the changes sense the danger of the “new” information and attempt to constrain its spread while at the same time engage in the defensive maneuver of requiring a stricter adherence to the “old” way of doing things. In this response there can be no openness to debate or dialogue for the leaders in power believe that they cannot give in an inch to different ways of thinking.

Beyond the leaders that are threatened by the “new” information, different people respond to this threat in different ways. Whereas some people welcome the change, even thrive on the “new”, others in various ways are wary of anything that is different or are just overwhelmed by the wave of the “new”. In one instance it is costly to change one’s life and thinking to accommodate the new information. In another instance the situation can be described as one of information overload: the new information is like “white noise” to people…they are inundated with too much information and are unable to process it. In either case, as well as others like it, many people resist what is happening because it alters what they know and are comfortable with.

This environment is making a major contribution to the separation that Egan describes in his column. Whereas he claims that the separation is occurring as the “brainy” areas of the country are divided from other areas of the country, I believe that the bifurcation is being exacerbated by the division between those that are receptive to the spread of information in the modern world and those that want to hold on to the old knowledge and the old ways of thinking.

The foundational “base” of the Republican Party is constructed more and more from just those that want to hold onto the “old way of thinking” and are resistant to the spread of information that is making the modern world such a dynamic place to live in. The objections that are being raised relate to the diversity of culture and of different cultures, the new discoveries in the biological and physical sciences, the innovations relating to information technology and the global application of this knowledge, the openness to alternative goals and objectives in the world, and the possibility that all worldviews, including theirs, could be fallible.

With the emergence of the modern Republican Party in the late 1960s, it became the common wisdom of the party that a candidate attempting to gain the nomination for President had to move to the right end of the political spectrum to get nominated. Once nominated, the candidate could then move toward the center in order to be elected. Early on, through the 1980s, the Republican Party had a sizeable portfolio of policies and programs that were sufficiently attractive to independents and other swing voters to attract them to vote for its presidential candidate. However, the Party had exhausted their portfolio of policies and programs by the late 1980s and into the 1990s.

Therefore, something new had to be tried. A young Karl Rove was able to resolve this dilemma. In the two Bush (43) elections, the Republican candidate for President stayed to the right in order to cement the base of the party. However, since the party had little or nothing to offer those in the center of the political spectrum Rove resorted to fear tactics in order to obtain the votes of the independents and the swing voters. In the age of 9/11 and the war on terrorism, the strategy proved to be successful!

A similar strategy has been followed in the current run for the presidency. John McCain was supposedly an independent, a maverick that appealed to those in the center. What he didn’t have was an appeal to the foundational “base” of the Republican Party. The campaign strategists filled this gap in a very satisfactory fashion, to their way of thinking, by getting Sarah Palin nominated for the office of Vice President. The problem with the strategy was that Sarah Palin was not acceptable to the swing vote and the election started to slip away from the campaign. McCain’s “maverickism” could not hold the center. In desperation, the managers of the effort moved to the old standby of the previous two campaigns…demonize the opposing candidate and scare the independent voter into voting for McCain.

Not only did the strategy not work, it exposed the intellectual emptiness of the Republican Party. It exposed the Party as being the party that was resistant to the future. It exposed the Party as being an organization that was not only resistant to the spread of information but as the party that wanted to constrain thought and hold onto old prejudices. It exposed the Party as being reactionary.

This is the problem America has to face going forward. In past years we saw this problem as one we faced externally in a world. Now, we see it as also a problem we have to face internally. For whatever cause, people everywhere resist the spread of information. People fight wars to keep information from spreading. It is not a new battle, but one that has been rejuvenated as those impacted have become desperate as they feel the world they know slipping away.

History shows that the resisters never win…but they can put up an inconvenient and troublesome fight. Those that support the spread of information ultimately win the battle by example…by showing others that, as Egan implies, they are good people living in a good place with room for all to join them.

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