The Great Divide: a Tale of Two TikToks

Miguel Alexander
Nov 30, 2020 · 9 min read

Hard to imagine that this latest election cycle was “fun” for anyone.

Division has characterized our news networks (Fox vs. CNN), pundits (Rachel Maddow vs. Greta Van Susteren), and our elected leaders (‘Socialist AOC’ vs. ‘Dark Lord McConnell’).

That is not news. What feels new is that choice has even divided families (including my own).

The divide in America runs deep. The Pew Research Center conducts a survey every election that aims to measure the magnitude of voters’ division.

In 2020, the results were historically staggering: the data suggest both Biden and Trump supporters responded that they truly believe that the other candidate winning represents irreparable harm to the country… almost categorically at 90% (Biden supporters) and 89% (Trump supporters).

That’s about 2X historical levels representing the greatest divide since modern polling.

Lasting harm expected from losing the election, on both sides.

Think about that for a second. That means that 90% of all voters truly believe that a vote for the other side represents SIGNIFICANT harm to the country, ie, they don’t just have a difference of opinion. You have to believe that the opposing point of view is harmful.

This leaves no room for middle ground and makes healing after the election seemingly impossible.

Majority Rule and Structural Division

In our Democracy, the voice of *most* prevails. So one might ask, if a winning strategy is to achieve 50.1% and there are 2 major parties, what incentive is there to win over the other side?

If you knew the country was divided between two major groups, and that one half, if energized, can win an election, would you not double down on your group and ignore the other?

This is what my political pro friends call “turning out the base” — the idea that all you need is your guys. And as we’ve seen from the Trump and Pelosi playbook, what better way to rally your troops than to polarize them?

Quick editor’s note: as an independent, my goal in writing is to equally perturb both sides. Readers seeking expression through bias may look elsewhere.

So Doesn’t the current dynamic re-enforce the divide? And so it does, with a significant load factor (for you engineering geeks). Hence, why I don’t think it inaccurate to describe the current state as “Structural Division.”

And the question of what to do in the face of division, sits like a weighted blanket on my conscience; making it far easier to “stand by” and watch two sides war with one another rather than to pick the side I disagree with least.

The TikTok Wedge

I ask what to do not just as a business owner afraid to divide his team and clients, but as a parent that has seen his two kids fall into two very different camps on social media app, TikTok.

One a male — a truth seeker and challenger, detached and discouraged from identity politics, who senses pre-teen woke culture as little more than a game to maximize number of identity and virtue-signaling tags that can be claimed.

He’s quick to find logical fallacies in liberal arguments and tends to follow libertarian or even conservative accounts that stress independence and tolerance for ideas, particularly those deemed politically incorrect.

The other is a female — who is just finding her voice and vehemently sides with those oppressed, especially those who are vulnerable, be they based on gender, sexual preference, or race.

She believes there’s a need to acknowledge disadvantage and to do something with her own.

And they each receive completely different media (reports of the news, personal reports, and event updates). All because TikTok’s algorithm has figured out the kind of videos they will watch, and therefore feeds them more of their echo chamber, arming boy and girl with more fodder each day with which to confront one another.

They are not receiving different sides to the same issues, they get a different story altogether. That’s TikTok’s brilliance: it will not create any cognitive load or pause with information that disagrees with your underlying bias. Making new information easily digestible and agreeable.

This phenomenon is referred to as the _______ side(s) of TikTok. This is not a new concept in social media, ie, the propagation of your own bias(es) by platforms. It’s the acceptance and take-side awareness that users have with being polarized and “algorized” into a side. For a non political exploration of the TikTok side phenomena, simply Google: “Alt vs. Straight TikTok.” It’s an important concept, since it is so re-enforcing.

Above: daughter of Trump Advisor Kellyanne Conway, Claudia, is a staunchly anti-Trump TikTok-er. She will often “duet” her reactions to Trump news, criticizing the President and her mother. (A duet is a reaction to a live video where the screen is split, allowing TikTok-ers to react live to previously recorded content.)

Consider the stir that Claudia Conway, daughter to a Trump insider, has been able to make on TikTok with her anti-Trump rhetoric. The Conway family serves as a hallmark of America’s family divide, not just because of daughter Claudia. But her father, George Conway, and husband to Kellyanne, leads the Republican-led effort against Mr. Trump, the Lincoln Project. For an interesting read, check out the Washingtonian’s timeline on the evolution of the Conway-Trump relationship.

While seemingly disastrous, the Conways are likely one of the healthier family divides on display. They still attend parties together which is more tolerance than some families can muster (e.g., not being able to be in the same room).

While I’m often distraught with the incessant side-picking that goes on in our home — I take some solace in their passion for believing something.

However, unchallenged belief is no substitute for understanding. And their generation’s primary platform for expression and understanding poses no challenges.

The most effective and happy people, are those that can reconcile their internal belief system with reality. Simply put: over the course of life, as rational people, we update our beliefs to get better, to move on, to heal and grow.

But when beliefs fall on polar sides of a Great Divide, do we accept program updates or commit to our current operating system (that’s the equivalent of hitting “remind me later” in perpetuity)?

I fear that what I see at home with my kids — doubling down on their point of view and eschewing the ideas of anyone that runs against; is a microcosm of what’s happening at scale.

And it’s hard to help thinking that our winner-take-all, two-party system doesn’t help. Binary choice — as experienced — has bred a pick-a-side-or-die dichotomy.

Majority rule today looks crude, however, we accept it as necessary.

Alexander Hamilton, likely now more famous for his Broadway play, reminds us in his earlier work, the Federalist Papers, the simple reason for majority rule:

To give a minority a negative upon the majority is in its tendency to subject the greater number to that of the lesser number.

That is, there is no reward for second place, no consolation prize for runner up. The minority, no matter how large or small, is subject to the rule of other side. That is American presidential democracy. Contrast that with Parliamentary systems where proportional control is granted into one legislative authority and from that proportion, a ruling executive team (the Prime Minister and his or her cabinet members) is created.

But this is not a comparative political treatise. And I’m sure someone will correct me on a number of assumptions I’ve made here but I’ll remind them that Political Science isn’t really a science.

This is simply an acknowledgement of our reality. And with that as our backdrop, a nagging question of how you reconcile two halves who vehemently oppose the other?

And how do you do it in an election where the main articulated divide is not based solely on differences of policy, agenda, or the size of government —but on things much more personal and amorphous: morality, identity, values, and judgement.

The question leaves us, as is characteristic of the information generation, with the most amount of data and the least amount of vision for what democratic government truly is.

That’s particularly poignant given that 88 percent of one candidates supporters believe the election was fraudulent, despite Republican appointed judges dismissing legal claims. Highlighting that ‘democracy’ even now, is being characterized as a machine manipulated by one side.

No one seems to offer a solution here, because it is not politically effective to. When our leaders’ chief aim is to win and when the dominant strategy is to identify and turn out your base (people who already agree with you), we leave a blue print for the next generation to pick and stick to a side.

Our Founding Fathers Didn’t Plan for 2020

Once can’t help reading from writing of Hamilton or James Madison, and as though these are ivory tower principles that don’t hold water in today’s times.

And I wonder if our founding fathers ever envisioned a world where our statesmen (these misogynists didn’t think to include women), were an elected professional class of shrewd fundraisers and spenders.

Structural Division left unbridled and without leadership to bridge, will will fair our young people no better. There is no longer a delay between the socio-political world of today and our young people’s understanding of it; no room for educators or parents to translate or water down the bull sh — t into dehydrated cubes of scented fecal matter.

Technologies such as TikTok give our young people unfettered access to the f#$%-ed up world we live in, now. In short, the s — t stinks and they know it.

The words of Thomas Payne are etched in an old notebook of mine that I had while I was a single working dad (during my most trying days). These words still serve as a credo in my work and personal life.

If there must be trouble, let it be in my day, that my child may have peace.

Part of me fears that in the information age we’ve gotten it wrong:

‘Give us parents peace and allow us to ignore our youths’ premature views and incessant media consumption, and we’ll deal with the trouble later.’

But in truth, it’s more likely that Thomas Paynes’ children were not juiced on information. And that they couldn’t fall onto a give “side” of TikTok.

While dated, 2020 could use some light from Madison’s Federalist Papers (№10 for you Poli Sci junkies) on divided “factions.” (Note: As I do when I read to my daughter, you may substitute “woman” and “her” in place of “man” and “his” and the merits of the passage remain.)

There are two methods of curing the mischiefs of faction: the one, by removing its causes; the other, by controlling its effects… the one by destroying the liberty which is essential to its existence; the other by giving to every citizen the same opinions, the same passions, and the same interests.

It could never be more truly said than of the first remedy, that is is worse than the disease. Liberty is to faction, what air is to fire…

The second expedient is as impracticable, as the first would be unwise. As long as the reason of man continues fallible, and his is at liberty to exercise it, different opinions will be formed…

The latent causes of faction are thus sown in the nature of man…

Madison goes on to suggest that factions are natural. And his larger point, which would require reading the full text (access here), is that the liberty that allows these factions to exist, whether in animosity or not, is a sort of check on the whole system.

And that judgement of other factions is by nature, illogical. We have different interests, identities, values judgements, etc.

And that’s the point —difference at its heart is American. So too, according to our founding fathers is the recognition of the need for Liberty.

And somewhere in there is a key principle of tolerance. Tolerance is not listening to reload (as my marriage therapist says I do), it is seeking to understand, even though we may never agree. We do after all have the freedom to love what we love, hate what we hate.

Understanding is not the job of social media. TikTok will certainly compound the Structural Divide of content because we ARE different. That is for us to understand and accept.

And before we judge Gen Z with all their unchallenged beliefs and borderline-cringe need to express themselves no matter how extreme, remember where this all started (yes, you).

Editor’s Note: I don’t consider the prospect of shielding my kids from social media as something that works for my family. They are teenagers/pre-teens and it is in the field of battle where we learn collectively.

This is NOT a how-to parent guide, rather, it’s my reflection as a parent. No parenting pointers, please. If you’d like to share how you handle your own brood, please do share!

With total gratitude and understanding,
M.A.

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Miguel Alexander

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Accounting and Business Advisor, Real Estate Investor, Father of Two Future Entrepreneurs

Home Economics

Simple takes on how economic, social, and other trends translate at home. We are parents, business people, and nobody’s in search of what’s true, interesting, and (occasionalyl) comical.