Ever since I wrote a book called Everyone Agrees in 2009, it seems that the universe has been conspiring to prove the title of that book wrong. The 2016 presidential election cycle has been particularly ostentatious about showing that people in fact do not agree, seeing an unprecedented level of contentious testiness from all sides since Trump’s victory.
Mass protests have been conducted in cities across the country with people — paid or otherwise — who didn’t accept the election outcome, asserting that Trump is “not my president!” before destroying cars with Trump bumper stickers and looting neighborhood shops. A Trump supporter in Chicago was pulled out of his car, beaten, and robbed, while onlookers disparaged his political affiliation.
An alt-right conference leader celebrated the Trump victory by shouting, “Hail Trump, hail our people, hail victory!” and questioning whether members of the press, who failed breaking major stories in the election, are actual people, a reference to Nazi dehumanizing propaganda about Jews. The hashtag #assassinateTrump trended for a while on Twitter. Some celebrities threatened to leave the country if Trump won, and some B-list actors are calling for the mass extermination of 60 million Americans.
Clearly, everyone does not agree on everything. It’s becoming frighteningly unlikely that anyone can agree on anything anymore, least of which is politics.
The Increasing Divide
Long gone are the days in which you’d see an electoral map with all but a few states going for the winner as happened for Reagan in the eighties, Nixon in 1972, Johnson in 1964, and Roosevelt in the 1930s. Since the 1950s we’ve seen increasing polarization with regard to presidential candidates. The gap in presidential approval rating between the two major parties has grown from 39% during Eisenhower to 67% during Obama.
In today’s America, you’re either red or blue, conservative or liberal, in the 1% or in the 99%, #BlackLivesMatter or #BlueLivesMatter. A Pew Research study showed that not only do people on the right and left disagree more than in the past, but in an increasingly apocalyptic attitude, more and more on each side see the opposition as a “threat to the well-being of the country”.
This increasing polarization has turned even normal people into political zombies, mindlessly chanting the litany of crimes by the other side all the while ignoring the crimes committed by their side. It’s almost comical to watch people decry horrific offenses by Trump that would’ve gone unnoticed if committed by Obama or Clinton. And in the Information Age, this type of hypocrisy will not go unnoticed. Liberals lost their minds when Trump tweeted that people who burn the American flag should be imprisoned, but conveniently overlooked all the Democratic politicians (including Hillary Clinton) who introduced legislation to make that very thing a crime. Trump haters, including Bill Clinton himself, have said that Trump’s slogan “Make America Great Again” is racist, but somehow forgot when Bill Clinton used the exact same slogan during his presidential bid. Americans are so divided, many will evidently forego logic altogether in order to diminish the opposition.
Unfortunately, this illogical either-or paradigm is so compelling that it’s almost impossible for a third way to exist. Because the other side is so bad, sensible people are forced to join the “lesser of two evils” so they don’t get their faces ripped off by the “greater of two evils.” Who wants to get their face ripped off, after all?
But is this fear unwarranted? Perhaps not.
I propose that we’re increasingly more divided politically because the object of politics — government — is increasingly more powerful. The political stakes are greater today than ever before, so we are compelled to participate at a greater level, even if it means we lose our souls as political zombies.
If government was limited to its only legitimate role of protecting citizens from harm to natural rights, it wouldn’t matter who won the presidency. Even if the opposition candidate won, he couldn’t do that much damage. But today, government is so big and powerful that it now has the assumed authority to drastically change one’s life for better or worse. The federal government controls over 20% of the economy; 22 million Americans count on federal, state, or local governments for their jobs; and 49% of Americans get some financial benefit from the feds. Additionally, government can fine your business out of existence for a deeply held personal belief; it can throw you in jail for ingesting a plant or collecting rainwater; and most recently, it is evidently the only authority that can validate one’s psychological identity.
People wonder why there’s so much money in politics. It’s because there’s so much power to be bought. The same principle applies to polarization. The reason we’re so divided in America is because the object of that division — government — is so dominant. Government is going to dramatically affect your life, so you must get in the game to try to influence it. Paradoxically, all the antagonism and divisiveness in America today doesn’t show that we disagree; it shows that we actually all agree that government should have more impact in our lives.
The more and more power we acquiesce to government, the more solutions we ask bureaucrats to solve, the more rights we abdicate in the name of safety or security, the more powerful government becomes. Like the beastly juggernaut that grows with every human sacrifice made to it, our government is expanding exponentially and is now nearly out of control. Why does everyone hate each other? Because we are increasingly invested in a system that requires it.
The Non-Zero Solution
There are a lot of problems with this, but they all relate to the fact that politics and government are zero-sum frameworks. If one political candidate wins, the other must lose. If a government bureaucracy gives a beneficiary some money, someone else loses it. This will come as a surprise to many Bernie Sanders supporters, but health care and college tuition don’t grow on trees. Everything that the government hands out has been taken from someone else. These zero-sum scenarios are why elections in general and national elections in particular are increasingly frightening. Every four years, the country decides what side wins and gets to steer the ravenous juggernaut and, necessarily, what side loses and will be victim to it.
It doesn’t have to be this way. Most other human interactions are non-zero-sum frameworks. Free exchange of goods, for instance, is a non-zero-sum scenario. When Jane walks up to a fruit stand and buys five red mangoes for $5, both she and the proprietor are richer for the transaction because they both wanted the other thing more than what they had. They both say thank you because they both win. In fact, whenever there is a lack of coercion in any social interaction, it could be said that it’s a non-zero-sum situation, which tends to bring people together instead of dividing them.
Robert Wright, who has written on the subject is only half-joking when he said that he doesn’t want to bomb Japan, “because they built his car.” When societies engage more in commerce, they are less likely to engage in war. He goes on to explain, “To the extent that you realize that someone else’s welfare is positively correlated with yours, you’re more likely to cut them a break.” That’s what we want to encourage.
If we continue to look to the zero-sum framework of government for our answers, we’re destined to end up in an apocalyptic false dichotomy between two evils. But if we can all agree to simply quit the game, return government to its legitimate scope, and focus on the non-zero sum solutions that bring us together, we will see a lot more peace, cooperation, and civility throughout society. I hope you agree.
This post was written by JSB Morse.
The views expressed here belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect our views and opinions.
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