Critical thinking is always difficult, but it is almost impossible when we are scared. There is no room for facts when our minds are occupied by fear. Hans Rosling
If I were to pick a specific date, I’d say it all really began on September 11, 2001. Sure, we’d experienced terrorist attacks before, but this one changed our national psyche. Geopolitically speaking, America is quite insulated, making the liklihood of a conventional war on American soil slim. This gave us a false security that didn’t account for the assymetric warfare of terrorism. After 9/11, fear became an indelible American characteristic.
As we began to heal, a different kind of fear emerged in the 2007 subprime mortgage crisis. Although our national economy has more or less rebounded, the scars of the Great Recession remain, most visibly in an ever widening wealth gap.
These fears, coupled with the internet era, which has increasingly divided us into tribes, pushes us to the fringes and radicalizes disparate factions. From the fringes came two seemingly unlikely candidates for President in 2016. In hindsight, after reviewing the build-up of fear since 2001, the rise of both candidates could’ve been predicted. Both Sanders and Trump held allure for those who felt established government players were no longer able to offer any protection.
In the aftermath of Trump’s victory, we’ve spent a lot of time focusing on his fringe supporters, namely the homophobes, racists and fascists. In this supercharged environment, most conservatives, regardless of their affinity for Trump, are now stuck with these labels.
Similarly, the progressives are labeled as snowflakes, whiners and communists.
As Berny Belvedere notes,
Centrists and moderates tend to suffer an enthusiasm gap that keeps more measured solutions to political and social issues from appearing as alluring, as meaningful, as some of their more extreme counterparts. There is a revolutionary fervor that naturally attaches itself to positions occupying the political poles. The human yearning to belong to a movement that is overthrowing systems of oppression (on the left), or recovering the glories of past greatness (on the right), is hard to satisfy with an incrementalist vision of social change, or worse, with a commitment to the perpetuation of the status quo.
There is little room for middle-ground, consensus-building or genuine dialogue and debate. Or is there?
Let’s take a moment to take a little quiz. The Advocates, a libertarian organization, are responsible for designing this quiz (so some of the questions are perhaps leading towards a more libertarian identity), but I think its quite instructive.
Where do you come out? Are you really a pure leftist “commie” or rightist “fascist-pig”? Maybe so, but I’m guessing not. And, if you find yourself somewhere in between, or even close to the margins, I’m going to go ahead and also guess that these pejoratives cause you at least some consternation. And yet, we continue to use them without discretion. After all, the center just isn’t sexy, nor does it seem to assuage our fears that have reached a crescendo.
Arguably, these quiz questions aren’t very nuanced. Let’s take the question on ending government barriers to free-trade as an example, as that’s a hot topic right now. With only 3 choices to a complex answer, it’s easy to go for the middle choice — selective barriers, selective freedoms — which puts you more strongly in centrist territory. And yet, globalization and free-trade has lifted the world’s economy 700% since the 1980s. Those living in extreme poverty has decreased 3 times from 2.2 billion in 1970 to 705 million in 2015.
However, globalization affects are uneven. In developed countries like the United States, globalization and automation has disproportionately helped those who hold or control capital. Conversely, labor, particularly in the manufacturing sectors, is often negatively affected. According to Ian Bremmer in his book, Us vs Them, the median wealth of the middle class has fallen 28% between 2001–2013, 40% of manufacting jobs have been lost and 57% of white men who have left the labor force receive a government disability check, while over half of men who have stopped looking for a job are on some kind of pain medication.
This is the backdrop to a lot of the tensions playing out in America, including the migrant crisis, racism and inequality, all driven by growing fear and insecurity. Further, according to statistics from the FBI and Southern Poverty Law Center, hate crimes are directly correlated to income inequality, and violent crime has risen in the past two years.
Solving these problems is going to take a concerted effort with support from both sides. Those leaning to the left will argue that taxing corporations is the answer, after all corporate profits are on the rise, even as employee salaries remain stagnant. However, multinational corporations effectively use the threat to move business overseas as leverage for tax breaks, leaving the government to rely on wages and consumption (labor) for tax revenue.
Perhaps tariffs will help solve the problem? As Luke Killoran explains,
increases in the price of steel and aluminum under the recent tariffs imposed by Trump will, in the short term, create 33,000 metal-making jobs and destroy 179,000 metal-dependent ones. This is because many more jobs rely on trade than are threatened by it.
What about government spending? The unintended consequences of government spending are huge and often induce rising inflation, which disproportionately affects the poor. In times of inflation, the wealthy put their money into mutual funds and the stock market to help preserve their wealth while the poor see their savings erode and real income decline as wage rises lag price increases.
No policy is going to have an equitable impact on both capital and labor but pulling solutions from both the right and the left mitigate the deleterious slide to either predatory corporate fascism on one end of the spectrum or communism on the other. In a world defined by insecurity, joint solutions may not excite our tribal fervor, but they do offer nuanced ideas that aren’t captured in fringe ultimatums.
Let’s look at another informative infographic on the left/right divide.
Clearly there is a lot that divides us, even in the best of times. However, in these bygone eras, these divisions are often complementary, and ultimately both sides want many of the same things — family, security, education. Our divisions provided a system of checks and balances — our democratic backbone. Discussion and debate was not a zero-sum game.
Now the discussions gravitate to the radical fringes (on both sides). Fear and factions hijack our national dialogue resulting in the pervasive narrative of “us vs them”. In this environment where our party affiliation trumps our policy preferences (pun intended), everyone suffers.
Although centrism has fallen out of vogue in this era of extremism, there is one policy choice that I believe both sides (and the centrists/libertarians that reside in all of us) can get behind: education. Thomas Sowell, in his book Discrimination and Disparities, suggests the expansion of charter schools within the public school rubric, especially in poor-income neighborhoods:
When people sort themselves out, instead of having the government do so, they seem to get better results… this was especially apparent during the years when mandatory busing of school children was imposed, in order to get racial “integration” in schools, for its supposed educational benefits, which largely failed to materialize. However, when low-income minority parents have had a choice of where to send their own children to school, the educational results have been demonstrably — and often dramtically — better in the more successful charter schools.
This has several advantages. First, both parents and children who are sincere in getting an education are among others who have the same motivations, promoting learning, advancement and greater social mobility. Second, in poorer neighborhoods where parents may not have the opportunities to send children outside of the neighborhood to get additional educational enrichment, there is a local solution. And third, as Coleman Hughes recently wrote in his provocative piece on race and the wealth gap,
Children from one culture may routinely hear phrases like “asset diversification,” “mutual fund,” and “inflation rate” on the lips of their parents, whereas children from another culture may not hear such phrases until adulthood, if they ever hear them at all.
Thus, education is not only the most direct way to ensure that everyone has equal opportunities, even if outcomes ultimately, due to different talents, are unequal, but it can also help close the capital/labor gap that threatens national unity.
Perhaps most importantly, as Franklin D Roosevelt says:
Knowledge — that is education in its truest sense — is our best protection against unreasoning prejudice and panic-making fear, whether engendered by special interest, illiberal minorities or panic-stricken leaders.
 Ian Bremmer, Us Vs Them: The Failure of Globalism (New York: Penguin, 2018).
 Thomas Sowell, Discrimination and Disparities (New York: Basic Books, 2018), pgs 122–123.