The Privilege of Having American Problems

“We have white people problems in America. That’s what we have. White people problems. You know what that is? That’s where your life is amazing, so you just make up shit to be upset about. People in other countries have real problems. Like “Oh shit, they’re cutting all our heads off, today!” Things like that. Here, we make things up to be upset about. Like “How come I have to choose a language on the ATM. It’s bullshit. I shouldn’t have to do that. I’m American!” — Louis CK
At the risk of sounding extremely bigoted, Louis’ “white people’s problems” echo that of American political problems: those problems including abortion, gay rights, religious influence, immigration, terrorism, women’s rights, affirmative action, etc. Not to say that these issues are not important to all Americans. However our political culture and our government has become so polarized in these issues, any kind of communicative, cooperative means that could be used to solve one of these many problems have been abandoned in the heated extremes of each party’s position.  Though dialectic is good for the democratic process, the excess of disagreement that goes on in Washington’s political parties “undermines the logic of the American constitutional system”.[1] As it is an interesting observation to make, polarization explains the stagnancy of the American government’s ability to get anything done. The more and more extreme the Democrats and Republican become in their positions, the more they cancel each other out, constantly butting heads while accomplishing nothing. As one of the central problems of American bureaucracy, I’m willing to argue two theories to explain how polarization is damaging to the democratic process. The first resonates Louis’ “white person problem” as being Post-Survival Instinct. The second is the Dialectic of Evolutionary Thought. As I expand upon these two self-made theories, I’ll also explain the problems with polarization as how it is affecting our government and political society today.

Not to beat a the dead horse of philosophy but there are many theories of human nature that attempt to explain and generalize human behavior into a calculable theory. Some argue that on a basic fundamental level, humans are simply animals: concerned with their own survival. Others argue that we are capable of more than just this survival instinct as we are aware of ourselves and have the ability to reason. I would argue both: that as products of the animal kingdom we do have an innate instinct to pursue our own survival. However, we have evolved far enough to solve that basic issue and having transcended to problems that don’t necessarily pertain to survival at all. Those “white people problems” are part of what I like to call Post-survival instincts: anything that transcends the basic needs of survival are luxuries. We see this in the evolution of capitalism through consumer goods: where at one point in time it was good enough to have a dependable car, simple items of clothing, a roof over our heads and food to eat. Now those basic requirements for survival have evolved into luxuries: Hummers, limos, expensive and fashionable clothing, mansions and fois gras delicacy. We no longer have to eat the vegetation of our geographic area but have fruits and vegetables from all over the world available in our local grocery stores. These, like problems of losing air conditioning and getting a parking ticket, are similar to those luxury policy issues in government. In relation to polarization, it is those luxury policies that are dominating the political spectrum: especially in this election year, and at an even more divided stance.

The second theory I would like to address is my little philosophical principle: “The Dialectic of Evolutionary Thought”. Basically my theory posits that dialectic is needed for there to be any intellectual evolution. Dialectic basically when two opposing views merge through discussion and reason to form a new conclusion: thesis + anti-thesis = synthesis (qualitative improvement of the discourse). As simply as possible, without debate and arguing (with the use of logic and reasoning of course) we can never truly understanding the opposing positions and thus never arise at a new position that would incorporate both views. Unfortunately, human behavior doesn’t necessarily abide by this principle. Humans seem to gravitate towards groups of people who will not challenge their beliefs, but reinforce it through like-minded opinions. Today Americans are more likely to live in communities with homogenous political opinions.  John Logan from the Mumford Center for Comparative Urban and Regional research calculated that political segregation in U.S. counties grew by 47 percent from 1976 to 2000. That means more Democrats are living in Democratic communities and vice versa with Republicans. As Law Professor Cass Sunstein of the University of Chicago said “If it’s the case that people really are pretty rigidly Republican or Democratic and that’s widespread, that’s not healthy. Our democracy is supposed to be one where people learn from one another and listen.” When people aren’t faced with challenges to their beliefs, but rather overwhelmed by the warm support of others who share the same beliefs, those beliefs only grow ideologically rather than intellectually. Without dialectic between two opposing views, there will be no progressive conclusion: basically our beliefs become fat and bloated with the fluff of those who agree with us instead of muscular and toned through arguing with the competition.
                The graph below represents the polarization of political parties from post-reconstruction up until today. 

As you can see one of the time periods where Republicans and Democrats were most moderate was during and after World War II. As the country was intensely united against the forces of evil, could it be that issues of luxury faded away as the issues of real importance surfaced?  Perhaps Republicans and Democrats set aside their issues to focus on the most important issue at hand. Maybe it is those big events to instill humility in us by uniting us under the most basic instinct: survival. Though World War II was an epic anomaly, it unified our country into one cooperative force to help defeat the evils of Nazism. I would like to conclude that Americans seem to pull through where it really matters, however I fear that since then political polarization has become so intense that even if we are faced with another reminder of our humanity, we would be too divided to arrive at a solution.

 The political circus of this election year has created a hotbed of social issues that Republicans are using to appeal to people’s emotions. The main concerns among Republican primary candidates seem to stem not far from religion, abortion and Iran.  It is easy to appeal to the illogical emotions that are evoked when issues like abortion arise and in turn only polarizes more voters. I’m not trying to downplay American social issues as being irrelevant or unworthy of political debate. However, I do think that as more and more politicians and constituents become politically polarized, the farther away we get from political progress. As politicians are concerned about being elected or re-elected, even if one wanted to be moderate for the sake of getting shit done, they wouldn’t stand a chance. What chances do you think Romney or Gingrich or Santorum would have against each other if one of them campaigned on a non-partisan platform? They aren’t getting up there to tell their voters they’re going to work together with the Democrats to accomplish certain goals. That would be political suicide. They need an edge and the more extreme their ideologies seem, the more likely they are to appeal most to voters.

Polarization has also made it impossible for Obama to get anything done in his first term as president. His opponents will be the first to criticize him for not following through with his original campaign promises, however whenever the poor guy tries to get something passed, the Republicans are there oppose it.

I would like to conclude by saying I’m glad I don’t have to wake up every day and have to worry about where my next meal is coming from, or whether or not I’m going to be stoned for showing too much skin or even as Louis C.K. put it, getting my head chopped off. However, just because we have luxuries of cursing out the ATM for having four different languages on it or nine different flavors of Mountain Dew to choose from the vending machine, doesn’t mean that we should ignore the basics of what we need to survive. We should recognize our very privileged position and appreciate it as an opportunity to advance our society rather than squabble ourselves into lethargy by focusing on those luxury problems. Now that we no longer have to worry about food and shelter and clothing, we should harness those basic survival instincts to something more than these lesser issues. We should refine those issues so that we can work more cooperatively to find solutions and devote ourselves to issues of energy policy, agriculture, poverty and other important issues that get ignored for relatively insignificant social problems. No offense to anyone, but leaving the abortion and gay rights issue on the back burner for some time while we address these more important problems isn’t going to kill anyone. However, people are eventually going to die if food and energy aren’t taken care of first. As long as politicians continue to use polarization to appeal to voters and as the political spectrum becomes more and more extreme in their ideologies, the less our government will be able to provide real solutions to real problems.

[1] Paul Quirk “A House Dividing”

Leave a comment