Opinion: How to unite a divided USA

Posted at 5:31 PM, Nov 13, 2016
and last updated 2016-11-13 17:31:04-05

Editor’s note: John S. Dickerson, a recipient of The Livingston Award for Young Journalists and a pastor, is author of “The Great Evangelical Recession: Six Factors That Will Crash the American Church … and How to Prepare.” The views expressed in this commentary are his own.

Donald Trump’s victory as President-elect has proven that America is not one nation, but two. These two Americas are deeply divided by mistrust and misunderstanding. One America is rejoicing, while another grieves in disbelief.

In January, Trump’s new party will retool federal and international policies to recalibrate the government’s internal and global posture. Then, four or eight years from now, the “other” America will likely retake the White House and reverse those actions. I believe we can do better than whipsaw between two angry, divisive extremes every presidential term or two.

If the United States hopes to ever become united again, we must begin to understand our American neighbors from the “other” America. We must establish diplomatic understanding. I believe this is possible.

I have unique experience with these two Americas because my life straddles the line between them. I was raised in the Rust Belt, in a white family, in a semi-rural setting. Then I moved to the other America: working in a metropolis as a nationally awarded journalist in mainstream news media. I now live in the San Francisco Bay area, but I teach at an evangelical church.

Every day I interact with friends and family from both of the Americas. Like a child of two divorcing parents, I see how each thinks. In simplistic terms, we might name these two Progressive America and Traditional America. Each represented about 48% of the nation in Tuesday’s vote.

I have been writing professionally for four years about the spreading, hostile gap between these two Americas. In 2013, I published a book for Traditional Americans, evangelical Christians who tend to vote red and live rural. That book helps evangelicals understand how society in the United States is rapidly changing outside their insulated, groupthink bubble.

It argues that the longer a person remains in evangelical Christianity — with evangelical friends, news feeds, radio and books — the more insulated that person becomes from life outside the evangelical bubble. This inward gravity disconnects evangelicals from reality beyond their bubble, and that can make them less able to understand or love their neighbors.

Tuesday night, I watched the identical principle — groupthink within an echo chamber — play out among my Progressive American friends. Because of unintended groupthink, many of my Progressive American friends simply cannot believe half the country voted for a man who they define singularly as a racist, sexist bigot.

Sociologists have done a lot of work on the rural-metropolitan divide and other common markers between the two Americas. In simple strokes, Progressive Americans tend to live in major metropolises, to be highly educated, to work in knowledge industries like media, tech or academia, and to be less religious. Traditional Americans tend to work with their hands, may have less education, live in rural or suburban areas and have deeply held traditional Christian beliefs, though there are exceptions to both stereotypes.

The true dividing line between the two Americas is not geography, race or education. The divide is ideology and thinking. Progressive Americans view Trump through a lens of race because race is a primary lens in their view of all reality. Traditional Americans may not like Trump’s comments on race or women, but their primary lens is military/economic security and liberty, so they focus on his statements regarding those matters. Traditional Americans are not all racists. Many tune out Trump’s disconcerting traits because they genuinely believe he can keep all Americans safe, including minorities. In similar manner, many progressives tuned out portions of Hillary Clinton’s record because they believed she could best keep all Americans safe and equal.

And so here we stand: One America celebrates what it sees as a positive revolution, with strides toward economic and military security. The other America grieves not only a political loss, but a social regression that it defines as an overt vote for racism, sexism and discrimination. For Progressive America, the Trump victory was not merely a step back eight years, but an entire century.

The divide between the two Americas continues spreading because, in part, social media and partisan-leaning news outlets enable residents of the two Americas to listen exclusively to voices that affirm their worldview. This facilitates groupthink. As a result, we grow less and less able to understand the other America, because, if we’re honest, we have no desire to understand them. They are not worthy of being understood.

That makes for failed diplomacy. Progressive Americans did not care to understand what motivated 48% of Americans to vote for Donald Trump. It was easier to just label them all racists or “deplorables.” It is equally easy for Traditional Americans to label progressives “those liberals” and not seek to understand their fears or motivations.

For both Americas, the instinctive response can be to dig in deeper to the self-assuring echo chamber of groupthink, rather than to acknowledge a failure in understanding the “other” 1-in-2 Americans alive today.

While Traditional America gloats in a victory lap, the reality is that generational belief trends among America’s young signal Progressive America’s future reign in coming decades. The more dramatically Traditional America gloats today, the more dramatic will be the backlash in four years or eight years, when progressives retake the throne.

I believe we can do better than vilifying our neighbors and plotting their demise. I believe we can understand and value residents from the opposing America. I have learned that it is possible — to respect the Americans with whom I disagree, from both Americas. It is possible to listen to them, to suspend my own beliefs long enough to understand why my opponents feel so strongly. That makes for actual progress and collaboration.

Until we recover this basic diplomacy, this basic human respect, we will remain a divided nation.