Why the “America Divided” Story Needs to Die

Sports Illustrated ran a cover this month declaring “A nation divided, sports united!” with a line of sports stars pictured locking arms in a stern black and white image. However united athletes and team owners may be over the issues of racial injustice, it’s the first half of the refrain that should offend our morality and our intellect.

The truth is, the “America divided” trope is nothing more than media cliché. It’s exciting to tell people they’re in a battle of Left vs. Right, liberal vs. conservative, New vs. Old. But where, on the basis of deep rational reflection, lies the vindicating evidence for this platitude? There’s none to be found.

Civilization lurches forward through the ocean of time — and we’re all on the same ship. As Americans we’re united by the same institutions, the engine of democracy and capitalism and rule of law, and the ever-changing flux of culture. Our little pockets of culture are different, sure, from Oregon to Alabama, from New York to Michigan, from Hawaii to North Carolina, the visible politics that flash daily on our TV’s and social media screens seem to create an apocalyptic movie of fracture. But that film has been overplayed. And worse, it’s untrue.

We’re only “divided” when the media declares it. And only “united” when the media does so again, often with pompous heroics — such as right after 9/11. This is an imposed narration, laid upon us when it fits the occupational whims of prime time. “Tonight,” says the slick-haired anchor man, “We witness a country divided.”

Or is it united? I forgot which.

To be fair, this labeling of “divided” or “united” arises partially by accident — a natural human reaction to the strangeness of anything newsworthy. Often the film of a few shocking, incongruous events begs for an explanation — a conclusion about “what it all means.” And the TV journalists, well-intentioned as they are, simply can’t help themselves: we must comfort Americans, send them to bed tonight with a tenor of either hope or despair — but never leave them hanging.

Thus when an afroed quarterback takes a knee under the star spangled banner, and a bronze-colored blowhard president tweet-vomits his geriatric musings about how the NFL should conduct its business, the media proclaims, “Division!” Then the pundits join in with commentary. And your uncle Bob rants on Facebook. But all that’s really happening is a public debate — the very raison d’être of democracy.

Of course, the NLF players’ national anthem protest and the politicized reaction to it are fundamentally about race. And it should go without saying that racism still exists, that it is vile, and that our country still struggles to exorcise the demons of its past. But that, in itself, does not prove the hyperbolic claim of “America divided.” It merely draws attention to a major issue upon which many disagree.

And besides, it’s not as if America stood unified a few weeks ago, and then a single episode in the NFL happened and split the nation in two. That’s absurd.

If we are human, then we live with the same hopes and dreams for our children, the same fears of death, and most importantly, the same capacity for reason. As the philosopher Rebecca Goldstein recently said, “To the extent that we are rational, we share the same identity.”

But if one taps into the media multiverse everyday of the week, it appears that Washington DC is beset by political brinksmanship and our communities are torn asunder by the wild, unprecedented show that was last year’s election. But of course it seems that way. That’s the modus operandi of a good story (and all media is an art of storytelling): to insert a “vs” into the equation of life. Without an epic battle, it’d be a pretty boring story.

But stories have consequences. And what looms large at the edge of the American consciousness is the possibility of a self-fulfilling prophecy: If you keep telling us we’re divided, eventually we will be.

In fact a recent Gallop poll portends this new fictitious civil war we’re being coaxed into: 77% of Americans say they believe that we are “deeply divided on the most important issues.” Where, exactly, the populous got this wacky idea is no mystery: The messages from media, mixed with divisive identity politics games (the alt-right to Black Lives Matter, the whole spectrum and everything in-between), have duped Americans into a story about their impending divorce.

That said, no doubt those who use the battle cry of “division” intend to do something good. They harbor the admirable hope that Americans will see the error of their ways, and learn to heal the divisive wounds of the past. But the continued use of that insidious cliché, “America divided,” only serves, somewhat ironically, to divide us further.