Americans Agree On A Lot. Words Used To Describe What We Agree On Reveal Our Divisions

Politics seems to dominate every aspect of the American conversation. Whatever the event or issue, it gets interpreted through a political lens and a divisive one at that. Is there anything political that Americans agree on? According to a July-August 2020 report from the Pew Research Center American Trends Panel, the answer is yes. For what it’s worth, respondents were equally divided between Democrats, Republicans and Independents. The report doesn’t indicate geographic, racial or gender distribution.

As close as Americans are likely to get to universal agreement, they give high value to the importance of: Government transparency; Separation of powers; Checks and balances; Minimizing money’s influence over public policy; Expecting serious consequence to misconduct in high office; Maintaining judicial independence; Respecting rights and freedoms; Expecting equal opportunity for all; The right to protest peacefully.

They’re also in general agreement that the government doesn’t do any of it very well.

Two items are of particular interest to me. One is the question about the importance of respecting the rights and freedoms of all people. The other asks how important it is that everyone has an equal opportunity to succeed.

Both conservative and liberal acquaintances place a high value on respecting the rights and freedoms of all people but use different words to describe what they mean. Conservatives work from the perspective of nonnegotiable individualism. Individuals, acting ethically in their self interest, are sufficient to keep each other in check. Private charity is sufficient to care for those in deserving need. Life is full of consequences, and if some can’t make it, that’s sad, but it’s their own fault. Government, as little as possible, is always a threat to rights and freedoms.

Liberals, placing and equal value on rights and freedom, use a different vocabulary constructed around the systems that establish and govern the community as a whole. Government defines what rights and freedoms are, who has access to them, what their limitations are, and how matters of justice are to be resolved. It is society’s responsibility, working through government, to assure that rights and freedom are broadly defined and assured as equitably as possible. They believe individualism can exacerbate selfish injustice and facilitate accumulation of power among a few wealthy elite.

Conservatives and liberals agree that respect for the rights and freedom of every person is “very important” (very important is the phrase used in the survey) to the future of our democracy, but it’s hard to see how the two vocabularies can be reconciled if each refuses to listen with understanding to the other. Intransigence has become a deliberate political strategy that bets on a winner take all outcome in which negotiation is neither desired nor tolerated. There’s a temptation to blame each side equally, but, as a strategy, it was employed in force after the 2010 elections exclusively by tea party-freedom caucus conservatives, although Newt Gingrich used it as much as he could during his speakership in the late 1990s.

The second item of special interest is the near universal agreement that it’s “very important” to the future of the nation that everyone has an equal opportunity to succeed. Liberals look at the history of systemic racism built into the fabric of American life through law, regulation, practice and prejudice, and assert that equal opportunity has been, and continues to be, denied to people of color, especially blacks. Conservatives deny there is systemic racism in contemporary America, and that past historical injustices should be left there. They appeal to the difficulties the white lower classes have had to endure, and to examples of people of color who have risen to high levels of accomplishment. It’s proof enough for them that equal opportunity is available to anyone willing to work for it. Liberal vs. conservative opinions on whether women are systemically disadvantaged are less certain, and complicated by positions on abortion, so for the moment that has to be set aside as a subject worthy of its own discussion at another time.

It comes down to more than finding ways to improve communication with understanding across the legislative aisles. More is at stake. Conservatives of our era are determined to abandon the liberal social and economic policies that have defined the American way of life. Today’s conservative leaders are fully aware that they prefer a democracy in which centralized power resides with those who control economic wealth. They’ve convinced their base that the liberal alternative leads to radical socialism of the worst sort.

Liberals desire to continue progress toward realization of the American promise we now read into our founding documents. It requires an active government creating conditions in which rights, freedom and opportunity are cemented into legislation and policy. They believe an adequately informed and educated public can be trusted to vote for representation that will work for the good of the whole while preserving individual rights and freedoms. Liberals believe the health of our republic requires diversified centers of political and economic power, and leaders who are committed to equality and social justice.

The 2020 election requires more than a massive liberal shift. It must also result in the energization of a new conservative movement equally committed to liberal democracy, but acting as agents of caution with a determined concern for efficient, effective use of public resources.

What Shall We Do With Essential Workers?

The term itself, essential workers, is new to the vocabulary in general public use, although we’ve heard it used more narrowly during threatening events in which non essential workers were told to go home. Who was essential was never defined, but it was understood to include at least police, fire and hospital staff. COVID has changed all that. It’s still a little vague but obvious that workers essential to the basic functions of society include more than first responders and hospital staff. They include first line workers who keep us fed, housed, and serviced by utilities. They care for children, the aged and disabled. They pick up garbage, harvest crops, prepare products for sale in grocery stores and pharmacies, and transport the same to where they’re needed. Essential workers turn out to cover a broad spectrum of people without whom the basics of modern daily life cannot be provided. I can get along for a long time without a new car or t.v., but I can’t get along at all without food and toilet paper.

Many, not all, but many essential workers, are at the bottom of the pay scale, earning $10/hour or less in part time jobs offering few or no benefits. They’re likely to have multiple jobs because they’re unable to earn income enough from one to afford decent housing, adequate food, means of transportation, and other necessities of modern life. These are the people who provide the essential primary added value to a product or service that society cannot do without, but their labor is valued at the lowest possible rate payable on the grounds that they are the least educated and easiest to replace. They are, in short, a disposable, interchangeable commodity.

It’s not new. Scripture reports the same thing going on in Egypt roughly 3,500 years ago during the time of Moses. The feudal system of medieval Europe was based on it. The injustices in Dickens’ newly industrialized England were the source of his novels. The American slave economy epitomized it. We gave it an updated makeover through early 20th century applied management theory that defined low level workers as replaceable cogs: needed, but of no value beyond what their physical labor could do that machines couldn’t yet do. Frederick W. Taylor’s 1911 book, “The Principles of Scientific Management,” established the terms that led eventually to late 20th century deification of upper management, while defining workers at the lowest level of producing goods and services as mere human commodities to be manipulated at will. To be fair, mid 20th century developments in Organization Development emphasized the value and importance of first line workers. It was widely taught, popular, and made consulting fortunes for its adherents, but seldom applied with anything other than flavor of the month bromides. But I digress.

The point is that the COVID pandemic has revealed how essential front line workers are to society. Beyond those whom we always understood to be essential, we now add hamburger flippers, custodians, warehouse workers, daycare providers, shelf stockers and an enormous cast of others like them in every field. They deserve more respect, higher pay and greater benefits than we imagined, and it will cost. Prices will have to go up. Those who have much will have to pay higher taxes. Management will have to compress pay ranges at the top to make more room for pay raises at the bottom. Will it happen?

It’s happened before, at least for moments. Waves of plague in the Middle Ages decimated the population of serfs, who turned out to be the essential workers of their age. Survivors gained freedom from their Lords, more respect from society, and greater opportunities to own property or enter a trade. It was often a temporary gain. As economies recovered and wealth again accrued to the Lords, front line workers lost a good deal of their advantage.

More recently, some essential workers in the decades immediately following WWII solidified their advantage through unionization. It didn’t last for a variety of reasons. Some unions became too aggressively greedy. Upper management intended to enforce their assumed right to run things as they pleased without worker interference. New technologies reduced the need for a large skilled workforce. Foreign competition made offshore production more attractive. In the end, upper management gained the upper hand during the Reagan era and were able to erode most everything unions had gained.

Now we have the pandemic and a renewed public awareness of who is truly essential. What will happen? Upper and middle management, it turns out, are easily replaced. Well established span of control studies suggest we need far fewer of them than we have. Mega salaries are nice for those who get them, but have little relationship to the added value their recipients provide to the operation. The bottom rung deserves more. Will they get it? That depends on whether the American voting public elects a government that will enact some form of universal health care, richly fund education from early childhood through higher education (redefined to include trades), reform the tax code to encourage higher pay at low levels and discourage mega salaries, raise and index the federal minimum wage, aid local communities in developing adequate affordable housing, and the like. Moreover, it depends on the American public as a whole that gives more respect and social dignity to first line workers who provide home health care, day care for children, clean places to live and work, and move things from where they are to where they’re needed.

Follow the Money? No, Follow the Advantage.

Follow the money has been the mantra of investigative reporters since the Nixon era. But money may not be the only thing to follow. One might also follow the advantage. To whose advantage is a particular incident or string of incidents? It’s a question to which answers can shed light on murky subjects. Following the advantage can also lead down rabbit holes of fantabulous prejudice satisfying conspiracies, so it’s important to objectively verify as one goes along the trail.

With that in mind, what about the incidents of violence and property damage occurring as a part of protests in places like Portland, Rochester, Minneapolis, etc.? Today’s right wing says it’s the product of out of control left wing socialist agitators intent on destroying America as we know it. Is it? To whose advantage are these incidents? The protests frame demands for a more just and equitable society. Do violence and destruction inspire broader public support for greater social and economic justice? Do they generate greater public support for Black Lives Matter? Do they give credence to demands for reforms to root out systemic racism and change the way we define policing?

Black Lives Matter is an interesting check point because many of the protests originated with reaction to a black life being taken by police. A recent Pew study suggests that 43% of all adults of every race have a favorable view of BLM, but only 18% strongly support it, while 26% are somewhat supportive. Among whites, only 34% are supportive, 6% strongly so. And Republicans? 20% are supportive, but only 4% strongly so. If protests are intended to generate greater awareness of and support for dramatic change in society, destructive violence will simply drive away those who are only somewhat supportive. That can be enough to scuttle whatever momentum protesters hoped to build.

Among them are some who don’t care. They’ve had it with white supremacy and are disinterested in appealing for white support. Yet a minority of the population forming a bloc of white conservatives retains enough political power to block dramatic change. They use fear of out of control street crime to encourage a momentum shift in their direction. It is to their advantage that protests generate enough frightening violence as to create sensational t.v. coverage, and give fodder to the media voices they control. To whom do they direct their appeal? To those who prefer no change, or change back to a mythical golden time. Not all are reactionary libertarians. Some are single issue white supremacists. Others are of the old school who believe people of color simply need to conform to white middle class standards to succeed. To them, systemic racism, if there is any, isn’t significant. Failure to make it in America indicates nothing more than a lack of ambition and a poor work ethic. An even greater number, I suspect, are basically nice people who are comfortable with the way things are, fear street crime, and dislike conflict in any form.

Violence, especially destructive violence, works in favor of those with the power to put a stop to social and economic change they don’t want. Skillfully employed, it displaces entirely the issues of injustice that sparked the protests.

They don’t have to organize or pay for it. They only have to stimulate existing conditions. A few well placed words on social media can entice white supremacists, militias, and right wing patriots to act on their beliefs. A few well placed words on social media can entice left wing revolutionaries to act on their beliefs. A few well placed provocateurs can tilt momentum away from hesitancy toward specific action; then wait for things to unfold as if spontaneously.

Why? What’s to be gained by defeating movements for greater justice and more equity? It goes way back and way deep, but comes down to this. Liberalism works against control of society by oligarchs who are quite certain they are the rightful ones to hold power, and equally certain that the “common man” is a commodity to be used in the production of wealth for those who have earned it. Moreover, the “common man” can be sold that it’s in ‘his’ best interest, and ‘he’ will believe it. Government should aid them, not get in their way.

Liberalism gets in the way by giving emphasis to the general welfare, and using government to create conditions in which the “common man” is not a commodity but a fully empowered agent of her or his life in the context of a more just society. Today that means a greater emphasis on redressing systememic wrongs visited on people of color. Perhaps most embarrassing is liberalism’s track record of fiscal responsibility and economic progress. Violence in protests helps turn public attention away from liberalism, and that might be all they need.

Alien Awkwardness & Empathy in Action

Many thousands move across country every year, but I have not been among them for twenty years, and as an elder, the experience has been unsettling in unexpected ways. For one thing, a new place in a strange setting creates a lot of awkwardness. Without the open skies and mountains, I find it hard to locate north, east, west and south. Locations of the usual stores is a mystery, and the stores themselves have different names. I asked one of our family members, near whom we now live, what direction he was from town center. He had to think it over because the terrain and roadways of tidewater Virginia don’t lend themselves to a direction. They’re still described by metes and bounds, albeit modern ones. COVID restrictions make entering the worship life of a new parish challenging. Arranging new utilities and internet service is not the seamless process advertised. Neither is severing ties with old ones left behind. Gone is the comforting familiarity of my old study, making it harder to concentrate on reading and writing. Our household goods should arrive soon, and we can begin the process of settling in. It all adds up to awkwardness.

In the scheme of things, our move is a trivial matter. It wasn’t forced. We chose it. We can afford to make it. We have the privilege of staying with my sister in her roomy home until our stuff arrives. It’s still awkward.

So why am I harping on awkwardness? It’s because I don’t think those of us who are settled in familiar surroundings are sufficiently aware of the difficulty faced by people new to a community or parish. We expect the familiarity so well known to us to be theirs by little more than good intent, a warm smile and osmosis. The awkwardness faced may be caused by having been forced on one in ways not of their own choosing, perhaps even putting them in a precarious financial state. Newcomers may not have the skills or experience to navigate the changes they are facing. Awkwardness can lead to feelings of helplessness, hopelessness, angry lashing out, and poor decisions with long lasting consequences.

Two cases come to mind. Years ago I ran into a guy in the local Y locker room who, though a stranger to me, aggressively complained each time I saw him about what a miserable excuse for a city it was. The roads were poor, the food was crummy, people were cold, he was sorry to have moved here, and he fervently wished to be back where he came from. In his case, no amount of invitation would suffice. His defenses were set and he was hunkered down for a long siege. The other involved an unexpected death that left a woman stranded in the awkward position of a new station in life for which she was ill prepared, while grieving the death of a loved one. Everything that had seemed familiar became an alien landscape where no sense of direction could be found. Kindness surrounded her, but she was helpless nevertheless. They’re only two examples of what is going on every day in thousands of ways in thousands of lives. No doubt sociologists and psychologists study these matters at length, producing a large volume of literature. I imagine they’re filled with useful advice. But at the practical level of every day life, what might a Christian response be?

Inviting those who are experiencing the stress of awkwardness in a new place to find Jesus is not it. Helping them find the pharmacy or grocery store is. When Jesus told the parable of going after the lost sheep, it wasn’t to preach, but to guide the sheep back to safety. Being a guide pointing out small steps toward greater familiarity, safety and comfort may be the most Christian thing one can do. Simply explaining the what, where and how of the next few steps can be life saving. Jesus is often portrayed as carrying a lamb. Lambs often do need to be carried, but sheep don’t. They can walk for themselves, as can most people. They may need to be guided in the right direction, but not carried. In other words, don’t do for someone what they are able do for themselves. Just be a trustworthy guide.

Should the path be toward the parish doors? Of course, in the right way at the right time, but it’s not going to church that counts. It’s being nourished by the holy food and drink of God’s abounding and steadfast love known to us in Christ Jesus that counts. Be an agent of that love in the context of daily life. Confidently offer it in God’s name. When the time is right, point the way to church. For that matter, the same goes for the newcomer to worship. The basics of “here’s what’s going to happen for the next hour or two” is more important than assuring them Jesus is glad to see them. Like Nathaniel under the fig tree, they’ve never been out of his sight. In a way, it’s all about empathy.

Empathy is a word that gets tossed around a lot these days. Everyone wants to demonstrate their moral goodness by being empathetic, which is a good thing until it gets demoted through overuse to cliché status. Empathy doesn’t belong on a bumper sticker, it belongs in action. Empathy for those who are experiencing awkwardness in an alien setting is shown not by trying to feel it as they do, because it can’t be done. Empathy is shown by being aware of the awkwardness, and by guiding the other as though leading them, step by step, through the maze.