Our Distorted Debate Exaggerates Our Divisions

This week pushed Americans together. Like feuding relatives in a dysfunctional family who put aside differences at moments of mourning, our fellow Americans — left, right and center — joined together to condemn the violence, to honor the victims and to affirm that peaceful discourse is important to our democratic society. Congressional Republican leaders postponed divisive votes. The President addressed the nation with words that bridged and healed. One Senator proposed altering a tradition at the State of the Union to have members of different parties sit together rather than across an aisle. 

Yet, even as we feel a spirit of unity, few of us would pretend there aren’t significant differences within our country. We know that before long, Congress will return to loud debates and party-line votes — and that’s all right. Our representatives should find common ground when they can, but need to stake out different sides when there are real divisions. I surprisingly found myself agreeing with Sarah Palin, when she noted that vigorous — and at times heated — debate are part of our country’s DNA.

In a column last week, Paul Krugman took it a step further, suggesting that’s our country doesn’t just differ on policies and legislative solutions, but that there are competing sets of moralities that animate the left and the right. For example, the left sees it as a moral imperative to take proactive steps, including government action, to ensure health care for all Americans. The right sees it as equally morally critical that we not force individuals to pay for others, that we not let the government become a nanny state that interferes in what should be choices by individuals.

Brian Lehrer pursued this question on his program, asking listeners to call in for a debate about the values underlying health care reform , and It’s A Free Country continued the debate, giving readers a forum to discuss “Different moralities, different ‘hopes and dreams.’”

Krugman’s assessment — that there are competing visions for our society and our country — is right on. But that doesn’t meant the country is as evenly divided as our our split Congress in Washington suggests. There’s a liberal majority in America…that just doesn’t know it’s liberal yet.

If you ask about specific topics in the news, like health care reform, gun control, tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans, you’ll often get the picture of a very divided electorate. But part of that is the way debate is shaped in this country. Cable news is dominated by back-and-forth screaming matches that quickly create two black-and-white sides for each issue. Print media, in the name of fairness, often quotes proponents and opponents of any view equally, even if one argument is based in science and the other in opinion. And the power of our political parties often relies on party unity, meaning as soon as positions are staked out, most elected officials feel pressure, and find it easier, to move to one side or another.

The very shape of debate makes it easy for the public to drift into one camp or another, not unlike Coke-Pepsi debates in the 1980s, or the choice between the Yankees or the Mets if you grew up in the Tri-State area.  We’re encouraged to choose a side, to join a team, and there are exactly two sides to choose from.

The result appears to be two very different moralities. But here’s the catch: while the brand loyalties are evenly divided, the underlying values are not. Rather, there is a morality shared by most Americans; and another set of values held by a relative few who simply have enough money and sway to distort the debate.

Do half of Americans want a historically unprecedented level of wealth stratification in our country?  Do half of Americans really want our generation to leave dirtier water and air for our children?  Do half of Americans really not care if their fellow Americans can't afford surgery? 

Or do most Americans share the moral vision that we’re all better off when we live for each other than when we live only for ourselves?  Most Americans understand that we are stronger when we recognize our common goals, invest in shared resources and collaborate toward community solutions. 

And to me, recognizing that we live for one another is at the heart of being liberal.  It’s why on local levels, we care for our neighbors, are involved in schools and community events, and want parks, libraries and other shared facilities. And on a larger level, it’s an approach to keeping a healthy environment and healthy economy, because we recognize that doing so is a larger task than any one of us can accomplish on our own.

That does not mean, by the way, that government needs to do everything. It is not our core moral vision that government needs to provide every service. But we do believe that government is a tool to achieve our shared aspirations and plays a critical role in preserving our health and safety. When there are challenges to big to solve alone — whether it’s creating a traffic grid, ensuring distribution of power to all homes or landing a spaceship on the moon — we rely on a sensible, functioning government to pool our resources and pursue our goals.

Here’s the problem: liberals rarely say that. We rarely connect the values that animate small-town America with the debates that electrify the cable news networks. We find it difficult to effectively link what neighborhood parks have to do with transformative energy legislation, even though they are both about investing our common resources toward a greater purpose. 

Meanwhile, there is another side, with men and women who truly believe we’re better when we’re on our own, better when we look out for ourselves and nobody else. And sadly, that worldview is too common among a wealthiest elite who benefit extraordinarily when that vision succeeds. This other side has invested limitless money into spreading their pernicious ideas — though front-group think-tanks that promote phony science, to right-wing media outlets that distort our debate, to rosters of spokespeople who put a charming face on destructive ideas.

As a result, we hear the interests of this small minority repeated again and again until these views seem reasonable to half of our nation. And this isn’t about a fringe that believes in racial superiority, or a fringe that believes God hates non-believers. There are other minority worldviews, but they are rejected by the majority of Americans out of hand. If only the moral vision of a me-first elite were as easy to dismiss.

A conservative and a liberal will still disagree, especially around specific policy solutions. But is there a chance that they could agree on underlying values?  Is there a chance you could talk to a family or co-worker about this “moral vision” and get her or him to agree that we are better off when we’re all in this together?  You can then argue whether government has a role or not, whether particular legislation will be effective — but at least you are starting from a premise that there is something we want in common. If you can do that, you will be more effective than any cable news program at changing the debate in America.

Justin Krebs is a political organizer and writer based in New York City. He is the founder of Living Liberally, a nationwide network of 250 local clubs that create social events around progressive politics, and author of "538 Ways to Live, Work and Play Like a Liberal."