Indivisible after all?
Taking our differences seriously (and soberly) is an essential aspect of democracy, but those who pump up division for fun and profit are a bunch of frauds.
There is no more zeitgeist-friendly column or opinion piece to write right now than the one lamenting the sad state of division among Americans. Sober institutions like the Pew Research Center have scores of studies to offer on polarization, ordinary voters in some circles embrace talk of a civil war, and unserious people in Texas are wasting time and energy on pipe dreams of secession.
■ It's no wonder that it has become de rigueur to jot down a few hundred words on division in political life. Indeed, there are important matters on which we have significant public disagreement. But politics are not all that matters in life.
■ Counterintuitive though it may seem, we have more in common than ever. It wasn't that long ago there was a vast moral panic over the observation that America was growing profoundly homogenized -- at least if you looked at things like our commercial culture. Walmart was murdering Main Street, suburban ennui was film-worthy stuff, and chain restaurants had made cuisine all too much the same everywhere -- so much so that the very uniformity of experience was making chain restaurants too boring to show on Instagram.
■ What we often fail to appreciate is that these experiences -- our shopping, our dining, and our homebuying, not to mention our membership in clubs, churches, and causes -- make up the bulk of the human experience. There's always someone new with whom you can argue about politics online, but most reasonable people don't engage non-stop in politics and the related (quasi-)news coverage of our disputes. Most people are too busy doing lots of other things.
■ And it is downright remarkable that, in 2021, so many of these things Americans do are virtually identical all across a country shared by 332 million people. It's downright astonishing, really. The United States is the third-largest country in the world by population. And yet, rather than growing farther apart, we're tending more towards the median on a whole host of things outside the reach of politics.
■ Take, for instance, regional accents. They're still around, of course, but they're fading just about everywhere. As elites (particularly on television) abandoned affected accents like Mid-Atlantic and standardized around General American instead, the same effect spread to just about every other part of the country.
■ Our high mobility rate ensures that there's a payoff to not sticking out too much when moving from place to place, and a flattening of the national accent is a ticket there. Our accents and local dialects persist, but they're nothing compared with the vast differences among regional British accents -- in a country with about one-fifth the number living in America. Here, even the Southern drawl is fading.
■ Or consider the way we are keen to recognize cultural differences like Swedish design, Danish coziness, or Norwegian Viking history. Even today, Sweden, Denmark, and Norway have distinct languages and cultural touchstones -- even though they are populated by just 10 million, 6 million, and 5 million people, respectively -- all together, just a few more than live in the state of New York. And the countries are so close together that you can drive a 10-mile bridge/tunnel combination from Denmark to Sweden.
■ Benjamin Franklin once noted that "They who have nothing to trouble them, will be troubled at nothing." Sigmund Freud, meanwhile, coined the term "narcissism of minor differences" to describe the way people may quarrel over differences that seem utterly insignificant to outsiders.
■ It takes some self-control for us to realize not only how alike we Americans really are, but that we can have healthy and even vigorous disagreements about our common choices -- without sacrificing the hard-won benefits of commonality. Taking our differences seriously (and soberly) is an essential aspect of democracy. But those who profit from stoking artificial divisions or inflated notions of difference should be seen as the hucksters and frauds that they are.