There have been several opinion pieces lately that say we have become too tribal. The tribes seem to be called “Democrats and Republicans”. A lot of us do not fit very comfortably into either tribe. But I think there are definitely two tribes and most of us are forced into identifying with one or the other. On the one hand, tribes are a natural kind of thing because we are all most comfortable with people like us. Groups of people who associate with each other and talk to each other eventually tend to think alike and draw the same conclusions. This is true of people in the same professions, and have the same associates on a regular basis. I once heard a manager of a news network say that people who reported Washington news inside the beltway tended to go to the same press conferences, but they also went to the same bars and the same restaurants. In that environment, one starts to believe that everyone should think like you do. After awhile they could not understand why anyone outside the beltway thought differently than they did. In the 1970’s and early 80’s I saw the same thing with people working in the oil patch in the mid-continent area. They could not understand why people on the East coast had different conclusions than they did – many of these folks had bumper stickers that read “Let the Bastards freeze in the dark”.
Most of the issues that we have today have no perfect solutions. We need to understand the pluses and minuses of each potential solution. To do this I think we need to listen and have open discussions with each other. But who encourages us to do this? Not the news media. The front page stories and the lead stories on TV news are the sensational stories. With most of the political stories they do a pretty good job answering who? (said what), what? (did they say), when? and where? (did they say it). But if it’s a political position the most important thing is why? (have they come to that conclusion). “Why?” is usually a longer explanation than the news media has space and time for. The op-ed page of the paper usually gets more in-depth. But most columnist have a “tribe” and on most issues they have an opinion and they may say “why”. However, with many, their emphasis is to convince the reader of their conclusions, so they only present stuff that supports their opinion. There are a few syndicated columnist who have the knowledge and the desire to give the reader the pluses and minuses of both sides of a possible set of solutions and I try to find those, but on a lot of days there aren’t any.
In fairness to the news media, we need to recognize that they are in an incredibly competitive environment. News papers seem to be going out of business and TV news channels have many competitors for the same advertising dollar. Not only that, but the internet is a constant source of news stories. In order to survive, news papers need people to buy their papers and pay for ads. “If it bleeds, it leads” has been something I’ve heard from my newspaper friends for a long time. Sensational stories help sell news papers. And today, most papers that I see are, understandably, trying to save money. Fewer pages in the paper, less ink, and fewer staff all effect their ability to survive. Answering the “why” question takes time and space and will not often attract more readers. Nightly TV news is only 30 minutes for most stations – 20 minutes with advertising. That isn’t enough time for much more than headlines. And the reporters no doubt spend the most of their time with each other, so they are probably a “tribe” of their own.
There was an op-ed piece in the paper today by a lady who is probably Democratic, but is usually pretty balanced. Near the first of her piece she says that she thinks our country has slipped from our founding values of a democracy toward “authoritarianism and mob rule”. I was with her at this point. But before she is done, she has taken more shots at the Conservative right than the Liberal left. But the fact is we’re all in this together and we need to work together. Taking shots at each other is not the answer. She defines what she thinks are the social issues all Liberals believe in and what Conservatives don’t seem to support. Interestingly, she makes no mention of economic issues, but she does say that she thinks colleges have gone too far toward shutting down non-liberal speech to which they disagree. She on the whole I think, has tried to be fair, but she seems to think that the term republicans is synonymous with conservatism and all democrats are part of the same liberal tribe. I think this is an oversimplification. Economic and social issues are often connected, and we need to understood how they are or aren’t related. I’ve thought about how I think Liberals and Conservatives differ, and they may not be as much as a lot of us think.
Several years ago I was sitting at diner with a man who asked, “Was I a Liberal or a Conservative?” I told him that I did not like stereotypes but if he had an issue he would like to discuss, I would be happy to give him my opinion. He asked again, “Are you a liberal or a Conservative?”. I told him again that I really did not want to be stereotyped, but if he had an issue he wanted to discuss, I would be happy to tell him what I thought. We never did get to an issue, but he said to me that he had some friends who said that they were conservative on economic issues, and liberal on social issues. I have thought about that since then and I think that would fit a lot of us. I don’t think many of my Liberal friends would be too upset if we managed to balance the Federal budget as long as we did not take help away from people who need it. Most of the conservatives I know would like to help people who need it. The majority of us may agree more than we think about a lot of things, but our emphasis is different. Some think it’s more important to keep the economy in line, and some think it’s better to focus on social issues. But the two things are inter-related in many ways and maybe we should look at both together.
The news media stereotypes people and our two political parties. Stereotyping tends to drive people into tribes. We believe that people in the opposite tribe are against us and so there is not much discussion. The assumption is that people from the other tribe don’t care what we think – they won’t listen and understand. But we are all in this together, and we need to listen to each other and understand “why” people may think what they think. If we did, I believe we would end up with better alternatives and be closer together.