Living in a House Divided
Note: This post called for more than my usual 400 words. Hopefully, you’ll agree it’s deserving.
The riot at the Capital Building on January 6, 2021 is unmistakable proof of a problem that’s been brewing for a while. It’s a problem few of us are willing to acknowledge–and the consequences of our unwillingness are dire.
Many will place the blame on Donald Trump. Doing so would be expected—and perhaps justified in some regard—but it will do little to bring about a lasting solution. That’s because the events of January 6th are just the symptoms, not the core issue.
The events of January 6th are just the symptoms, not the core issue.
Any consultant worth their salt will tell you that specific individuals are rarely the root cause of a problem. Though individuals certainly play a part, they are merely evidence of a deeper—and usually systemic—set of processes and assumptions that are in play.
And Your Point Is…?
The core issue is not Donald Trump and/or his supporters or detractors. The core issue is that we have embraced division as a way of life.
We live in a house divided.
Specific individuals are rarely the root cause of a problem.
As a nation and society, we have embraced an attitude of division as a way of life. Though this goes way beyond the political arena, politics perfectly reflect the issue.
In observing news, social media, talk radio and conversations at the water cooler and across the kitchen table, we talk and act like our society falls into two polarized camps. These camps have opposite views on almost every issue with virtually nothing in common. Graphically it might look like this:
The outcomes of this approach are predictably self-evident. Nothing gets done. Priority, long-term issues become politically radioactive and get kicked down the road in favor of securing short-term gains. Policies, positions and programs swing wildly from one election cycle to the next.
Both sides view each other as radicals and extremists. They advance their position by destroying the credibility of the other side. Everyone’s broadcasting but no one’s listening; dialog and diplomacy get squeezed out by diatribe.
The modern presidential election strategy is to do enough to maintain your base (keeping those states in your corner), and target the undecided moderate voters in the key swing states—which can boil down to a relatively small number. This turned the tide in Biden’s favor in 2020. Likewise, in 2016, Trump won by getting 77,759 more votes than Hillary Clinton in three key counties across the three swing states of Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania—in spite of actually losing the popular vote.
Everyone’s broadcasting but no one’s listening.
The game comes down to one of two plays:
- Leverage power to maintain majority, or
- Obstruct the agenda of the majority until you can get it back.
Each election cycle we slip further and further into the crevasse of division, and the results become increasingly combative. Ultimately, the people suffer—and those most impacted are the ones with the least influence and affluence. Our standing and reputation as a nation suffers; no one wins.
Consider: Would you want your family to operate this way? Your football team? Your company? Not if you cherished it, wanted it to be competitive or have a lasting legacy.
As Lincoln said, “A house divided against itself cannot stand.”
Would you want your family to operate this way?
The Big Picture
This state of division doesn’t reflect who we actually are. Our society is more of a spectrum of perspectives. We are, generally speaking, a majority of either left- or right-leaning moderates with the more firmly-entrenched perspectives further out from the center. It actually looks more like this:
Though this sounds idyllic and panacean, we actually have much more in common than not. We could make tangible progress if our politics and society were guided by that truth, instead of the fear-based convenience of division.
Take any major issue facing us: Health care, immigration, social security, etc. What if our default approach were to be:
- Start with what we have in common,
- Then cooperate to identify a realistic outcome (even if it’s far from ideal) that isn’t tainted by political expediency or right- or left-leaning policy objectives,
- Then work together to achieve that outcome, at perhaps the expense of each side’s agenda.
We are a diverse society in thought, perspective, history and experience. Diversity makes for a stronger team, as long as they share a mutual respect and a unified goal. Surely, we can identify some common ground on which we stand, can we not? For consider: If we can’t, we’ve already lost, no matter which side we’re on.
We can identify some common ground on which we stand, can we not?
The main point of this whole discussion is that unity is a leadership issue. Moving from division to unity won’t just happen. It’s a massive change that will come only from courageous leaders inspiring it, modeling it, exhorting it, challenging it, motivating it … And it’s bigger than any one leader can generate. It requires a collection of leaders, working collaboratively.
I appreciate the current calls for unity as we see the onboarding of a new administration. But if we don’t make the decision—as an entire society—to reject division as a collective way of life, then we’ll never achieve unity. I mean no disrespect to the Biden administration (most new administrations in recent memory have made similar calls), but a call to unity without changing the underlying we’ve-got-the-majority-now approach will only further increase the divide. One person can’t fix this problem.
The solution requires nothing less than a cultural transformation. Leaders in news, media, industry, society, neighborhoods, families must all engage. Parents must train their children on the importance of unity over division. Ordinary citizen-leaders must stand for unity in their circles of influence and expect the same from its elected officials.
Who are the leaders that will step into the gap?
A call to unity without changing the underlying we’ve-got-the-majority-now approach will only further increase the divide.
Your Next Step
Lincoln was advised not to deliver the “House Divided” speech, out of fear that it was too radical and may cost him the 1858 U.S. Senate seat in Illinois. Lincoln replied that “The proposition is indisputably true … and I will deliver it as written.” His opponent, Stephen Douglas, widely used his speech against him and eventually Lincoln did lose.
Curiously, it’s also been observed that while it may have cost him the Senate seat, it probably gained him the Presidency two years later. Unity will not be quick, easy or expedient. Unity will, however, establish and maintain our legacy.
C’mon, y’all … we can do this.
“The proposition is indisputably true … and I will deliver it as written” (Abraham Lincoln).
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