Engaging Imagination

There's more brouhaha over the "great divide" in America. Since writing last, I have continued to see a string of stories in the news on this topic. With each story another observer comes forward with their own analysis, suggesting yet another division that plagues our woeful society. It's amazing the nation is still standing.

Here are a couple of examples to mull over as you try to keep the pieces of the divided nation together:

David Brooks in The New York Times explains his belief that the divide between "Managers" (Red People) and the "Knowledge Class" (Blue People) influences views on leadership.

Knowledge-class types are more likely to value leaders who possess what may be called university skills: the ability to read and digest large amounts of information and discuss their way through to a nuanced solution. Democratic administrations tend to value self-expression over self-discipline. Democratic candidates - from Clinton to Kerry - often run late.

Managers are more likely to value leaders whom they see as simple, straight-talking men and women of faith. They prize leaders who are good at managing people, not just ideas. They are more likely to distrust those who seem overly intellectual or narcissistically self-reflective.

In other words, along with the policy and cultural differences that divide the groups, there are disagreements on these crucial questions: Which talents should we admire most? Which path to wisdom is right? Which sort of person deserves the highest status?

Kevin Drum had this to say about Amy Sullivan's account of making small talk about the Left Behind books at a cocktail party with Washington Evangelicals:

I know the conventional wisdom these days says that the single most reliable determinant of voting is church attendance (the more you attend church, the more likely you are to vote Republican), but it's anecdotes like this that continue to convince me that the real divide in America is rural/urban, not secular/religious. Sure, you need to be pretty religious for the Left Behind books to appeal to you in the first place, but even at that its admirers are mostly in small town America. Urban folks, even the most strongly religious of them, are mostly too elite to be anything but embarrassed by this kind of stuff.

In fact, I often get the feeling that urban conservative intellectuals - i.e., most of the ones who actually write about this stuff - are faking it when they write about socially conservative causes. They may be able to peck out an austere intellectual argument that gays are bad and faith healing is authentic Americana, but they aren't true believers. They act like someone who extols the virtues of tofu burgers in public because they own stock in a tofu company, but then sneaks out to McDonald's when no one is looking.

I'm sort of rambling here. Sorry. It's just that this subject never really seems to get quite the attention it deserves. Among all the talk of liberal/conservative, religious/secular, east/west, and white/nonwhite, I still think the real core social divide in America is between big cities and small towns. Get a few beers into them, and even the urban conservatives would probably admit that they think their core supporters in Middle America are a bunch of hicks. And don't even get me started on what those rural hicks probably think of David Brooks....

Some of the stories on the divided nation have been quite good, serious and illuminating. Bill Bishop's articles in the Austin American-Statesman are great examples, and well worth taking the time to register on the site.

But, overall, it's time for most of us to get over this unproductive preoccupation. People will always be divided in one way or another. We live in different places; eat different foods; speak with different accents; pray at different houses of worship; do different things for a living; enjoy different hobbies. Of course, people are different! Is that a surprise to anyone?

The real problem is that given the incredible marketing techniques for divvying up people, we can slice and dice ourselves into oblivion. It's as if there are those people who now look for divisions because they can. What's more, lots of people make lots of money by playing off of these divisions.

But just because we can find differences among us doesn't mean we must be divided politically. But, for now, we're stuck in a master narrative of division, the refrain of which is, "We Are Divided!"

How to get beyond the current stalemate? The political dynamic needs a serious shake up. The core challenge is one of imagination. We must be willing to engage it. So, to help people imagine and act for the public good, there are three fundamental questions I want the news media, civic groups and political candidates to engage people on:

1. Can I see beyond where we are? 2. Is politics and public life more than just about me? 3. Do we believe in ourselves? Do we hold a civic faith?

Of course, none of this is happening in the presidential race. Instead, the campaigns, news media and others all constantly work to divvy people up and play on their differences. That's politics. But I'm hoping that one of the candidates, even more of the news media, and many civic organizations figure out that shaking up the current environment and exploring what binds us together is a better course than dividing us into fragmented armies of self-interested combatants.