America is becoming increasingly polarized.
Right-wing discourse consists of endless hand-wringing about how the left consists of “special snowflakes” that need “safe spaces” (or in harsher terms, “echo chambers”) to function, and that left-wing views won’t stand up to the scrutiny of “the real world”. Left-wing commentators counter by pointing out the right’s tendency to ban the official use of terminology that runs counter to their viewpoints, and to exclude minorities from their spaces – correctly pointing out that this is the right instituting their own “safe spaces” and “echo chambers”. As America divides, it’s becoming increasingly apparent that even our core values are drifting apart.
I’d like to posit that this is because we don’t really have the core values that our founding mythology says we do. Instead, we just have one core ideal, the one that our country was really founded on: the very same echo chambers that we endlessly argue about. We want supremacy of the views that we hold, without being challenged by competing views, as a deep-seated cultural ideal.
Settlement of America
One of the core parts of our founding mythology is Puritan settlement of America. As the story goes, Puritans, dealing with religious persecution under the rule of King Charles I, fled England for America, settling it and shaping it into a society that promoted freedom of religion (one of, as this founding mythology claims, our core values).
However, there’s another way to look at this. The Puritans, rather than staying in their home society, to try to make what they believed to be a better space for themselves within it, decided to leave for somewhere else. Fundamentally, they decided to create an echo chamber for themselves, and imposed their will on the area that they settled. Sure, they may have learned some lessons from state control of religion in England, but they wanted to impose social control of religion in their new nation. Not only that, but slavery was an accepted practice in this era, with both Native Americans and Africans being enslaved by the settlers.
Eventually, British Parliament decided to increase taxation on the American colonies, without allowing the colonies representation in Parliament. Relations between Great Britain and the colonies degraded into war, and ultimately, the American colonies decided to declare independence from Great Britain. Of course, this is a core part of our founding mythology, and one line from our declaration of independence is held up as the foundation for our core values:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.
American society throughout its history, however, could be argued as having a poor track record of upholding these values. Eighty-nine years of legal slavery after this document’s adoption, the abuses perpetrated against Native Americans in the name of westward expansion, our ongoing disregard for Native lands, the toleration of continual abuses of migrant workers, structural racism against black people that continues to this day, and our current treatment of LGBT people are just a few things that come to mind – and in many of these cases, representation of the marginalized people is lacking, adding a degree of hypocrisy to our complaints of taxation without representation.
However, what our declaration of independence did do was set an example to our society, while following the example that the Puritans had set a century and a half prior, of leaving a society to make one’s own, rather than staying and fighting for one’s place within the existing society. (I’m not about to argue that our independence was wrong, though – just that it set an example to our culture.) Echoes of this decision have, I’d argue, reverberated through American society to this day.
In addition, our nation tends to be bad at compromise, at a deep societal level – why compromise if you can just leave? In the wake of independence, America almost fell apart several times while hashing out the compromises that our nation was built on – the events leading up to the Three-Fifths Compromise and the delay of the Bill of Rights are two early examples I can think of.
As a young nation, America rapidly expanded westward, under the mindset of manifest destiny – that westward expansion was deserved, needed, and destined. However, rapid westward expansion also compounded our issues with separatism in our culture – if you don’t get along with your neighbors, just move westward, or push them westward, rather than try to live in harmony.
A striking example of this in the pre-Civil War era that I can think of is the expansion and later displacement of the Mormons, culminating in their settling the Utah Territory. This mirrors the Pilgrims’ migration to America – local government had religious predilections that ran counter to the Pilgrims and later the Mormons, they were disenfranchised or expelled, and eventually imposed their religious will on another area.
Another example I can think of is the foundation of Oregon – it was founded as the only state that forbade black people from living in it. The more modern term of white flight, which I’ll discuss later, typically refers to middle and upper-class white migration from cities to suburbs that excluded black people, but Oregon was a whole state of white flight, before the Civil War.
And, there’s also the Homestead Acts during and after the Civil War, in which Americans were explicitly encouraged to expand westward and claim lands for themselves, effectively encouraging generations to isolate themselves from the greater society. Of course, this expansion was at the expense of Native Americans that were already on that land, with America’s military might used to secure those lands against the Native Americans that were living there.
Much mythology has been created around our only formally-declared civil war, and it’s something that’s argued about to this day. Rhetoric around “states’ rights” has been thrown around ever since the events that led up to this war, as well as economic arguments… but it basically boils down to slavery. (Note that the southern states, in the same breath, argued for rights as states to keep slaves, while arguing against the northern states’ rights to protect fugitive slaves.)
What is perfectly clear, though, is that the southern states that seceded to join the Confederate States of America decided that, rather than cooperate with the northern states, their best bet was to take their ball and go home, and attempt to isolate themselves from the northern states, continuing the American pattern of creating echo chambers.
Our civil war ending did nothing to resolve the racial tensions in America, and racial resentment only grew over the decades after the war. The end of Reconstruction allowed white southerners to regain political control, and immediately they worked to institute barriers to politically disenfranchise black people, as well as impose and enforce segregation.
In the wake of this, in the 1950s and 1960s, a combination of litigation (Brown v. Board of Education) and protest was deployed against these policies. Integration (ending of racial segregation) of public institutions was forced by the Brown ruling, but was abhorrent to many whites.
In past times, westward expansion, Oregon-style might have been used to deal with these tensions, but that was no longer an option – there was nowhere west to expand to, nowhere to found new white-only cities. At the same time, though, America’s booming economy in the wake of World War II led to the mass motorization movement.
Before mass motorization, cities had vastly better economic opportunity than rural areas, and even among racists, the economic advantages of living within a city outweighed the disadvantages of living alongside people that they hated. Mass motorization, however, enabled the creation of suburbs at large scale, and for those suburbs to economically function as part of the city that they surrounded.
This phenomenon occurred in many places throughout the world, but it affected America uniquely – our uniquely strong economy in the wake of World War II and our wide-open geography enabled it occurring at larger scale, and the racial animus in our country led to it happening along racial lines, to the point that we have nearly dead, majority black urban cores surrounded by rich white suburbs. Many of these suburbs have also been structured around keeping black people out, with legal structures such as Home Owners’ Associations being used to enforce this.
With the end of the Federal Communications Commission’s Fairness Doctrine in 1987, and with the rise of cable news, American media has become increasingly polarized – quite literally echo chambers. Under the Fairness Doctrine’s regulation, mass-market media tended to be broad-reaching, aimed at all audiences. However, cable television was not subject to much of the FCC’s regulation due to not being limited spectrum, and the abolition of the Fairness Doctrine opened the airwaves to politically-slanted content as well. The right, after having pushed for the end of the Fairness Doctrine, quickly took advantage of this, with programs like The Rush Limbaugh Show, and even their own cable TV news networks such as Fox News.
The Internet has further deepened this divide, as well. While the democratization of media has been hailed as a good thing for our society – and in some ways, it has been – it’s enabled increasingly polarized media sources to be the primary source of news for much of our society. Social media has only served to accelerate this, between encouraging the spread completely fabricated news sources (many of which are fabricated by foreign actors trying to undermine America’s societal fabric, as well as by creating what’s commonly referred to as the “filter bubble” – viewpoints that run counter to one’s own can easily be filtered out manually (on social networks like Twitter and the Fediverse), or even automatically using artificial intelligence (in the case of social networks like Facebook, or search engines like Google).
Ultimately, I’d argue, this is the most American of things that we could have done with this technology. We’ve managed to – rather than fight for our place within our society – create new societies, and quite literally tune out of the greater society that we’re in. And, within social media, we create smaller and smaller subcultures that struggle to compromise with one another – when splitting your culture consists of signing up for a website, or hitting a block button, it’s easier than ever to not compromise.
This even extends to our political parties – I’ve seen so many calls on social media for socialists and social democrats to completely leave the Democratic Party, and refuse to cooperate, in response to the neoliberal party leaders’ actions against social democrats within and adjacent to the party. Or, there’s “horse race politics”, where it’s no longer about policy, but it’s about whether “your side” wins or not.
Urbanization and gentrification, ruralization
For many reasons, younger generations in America today have an interest in living in urban areas again. Some of us have environmental reasons for urbanizing, seeing the effects of mass motorization on our climate and our air quality. Some of us simply see driving as a chore that we’d rather not have to do, and urbanization removes that chore – urban areas enable walking, cycling, and mass transit in ways that are infeasible in American mega-suburbs and rural areas.
However, there’s also political reasons for this. The cultures of our suburban and rural areas are colored by the decades of white flight that built them in their current form. We see ourselves as being stifled by the homogeneous cultures of our ancestors. Many of us see ourselves as post-racist – even if that’s not exactly true, many of us don’t have a problem living next to people who aren’t white. And, while American society is increasingly tolerant and even appreciative of LGBT people, those that wish to perpetuate the “culture wars” encourage the rural and suburban right to openly hate LGBT people, making rural and suburban America a downright dangerous place for them. This encourages further urbanization.
While middle and upper-class Americans moving back into the cities does bring a tax base back into the cities that so desperately need it, it does have some insidious effects. While many of us claim to be post-racist, we often end up perpetuating some racist ideals when we move in and “revitalize” blighted districts of our cities, and our actions end up having racist effects by economically displacing the minorities that we claim to love. We may not hate black people and other racial minorities, but we perpetuate the systems of inequality that are used against them.
It’s also something that I’ve noticed happening the other direction, as well – people moving from states that have a largely urban populace (and are therefore “blue states” and tend to have more left-wing policy), to states that are less urban (either “swing” or “purple states”, which tend to have more compromised policy because of the urban and rural areas being in conflict, or “red states”, which tend to have more right-wing policy), due to issues with the prevailing ideology in their home state. I personally live in Ohio (in what could be considered a rural exurb of Columbus, although it has its own local economy as well), which is arguably the swing state – “as Ohio goes, so goes the nation” being a popular saying about our Presidential election process – and I’ve noticed an influx of people from California that tend to have right-wing political views.
Ultimately, we’ve turned our cities into echo chambers, and imposed our will on them, because we weren’t happy with the suburban and rural echo chambers, and the will that was being imposed on us. Conversely, the suburban and rural echo chambers are only becoming more polarized.
One thing that I feel that I need to make clear is, in some of these cases, the American tendency to segregate oneself rather than continue to try to compromise wasn’t the wrong thing to do. As an example, in the modern case of LGBT people feeling unsafe in rural America, it’d be insane to say that they should stay where they could get killed for being who they are. Or, for an early example, going back to the founding of our country, British exploitation of our colonies without representation was legitimately an untenable situation, and independence was likely the only effective solution.
However, I feel that our nearly 300-year-old history of, instead of being able to compromise, segregating ourselves from and/or marginalizing those that we disagree with, has created the current situation that we have in America. We focus on what makes us different, both to expel people from our groups, as well as to justify leaving groups to form our own. We so often define ourselves by what we’re not, rather than what we are – this likely contributes to things like negative political campaigning. We focus on “wins” in politics – which are both exertion of our will on the “other side”, as well as escaping from exertion of their will on “our side” – at the expense of even our own values, at the expense of maintaining a functioning society. (Just look at Donald Trump’s election as President, Roy Moore’s attempted run for Senate, or even things like people calling for Al Franken to not resign in the wake of accusations of him sexually assaulting women – all in the name of our society giving up on our values for the sake of “wins”.)
America will never be the society that anyone wants it to be, until we can figure out how to compromise and exist in the same society, rather than creating ever-smaller forks of our society that are unable to even talk to one another. We need to be able to have good-faith discourse with one another, to have a properly functioning society, and we need to figure out the values that we actually share.
Myself, I’ve long held the view that left-leaning states should consider seceding from the union, that the union is no longer working for them… but realistically, that view is just acting to cause another fork of society, making American society work for fewer people. Maybe we can actually figure out how to save our society?
@firstname.lastname@example.org started a Fediverse thread about “echo chambers”, and those that make the accusation that people are in them. It’s highly interesting, and the comments that he made in it contributed greatly to this piece.
An IRC discussion between myself, @email@example.com, and @tsundeoku, of the Japanese book 街場のアメリカ論 by 内田 樹 led directly to this piece. I’d also like to thank them for taking a look at this piece before publication.