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Bipartisan Empathy: Is it a Trap?

— October 7, 2016

Facebook, for all of its flaws, is a rich source of food for thought if you have the right contacts. Today I was scrolling through my newsfeed when I came across a good friend’s homage to Ambrose Bierce, author of the Devil’s Dictionary and late 1800s prequel to the likes of Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert. As his contribution to the lexicon, my pal lent a definition for the term Bipartisan, which I’ll quote with his permission:

Bipartisan = name for a flash mob organized for the instant by the coordinated action of lobbyists to the advantage of the oligarchy. A so-called Bipartisan majority in a deeply divided legislative body is by far the most leverage oligarchs have over the legislative process. In fact, nurturing and maintaining the insurmountable divide is the only means by which virtually invisible control can be exerted.

Politically-inspired iteration of the Morpheus meme, of the type found throughout the Internet. Image was spotted on Pinterest, but appears to have originated at
Politically-inspired iteration of the Morpheus meme, of the type found throughout the Internet. Image was spotted on Pinterest, but appears to have originated at

I chuckled for a moment, but then I shook my head. In a country as divided as ours is now, a bipartisan agreement is like a rare and precious flower. Both major party organizations represent monied interests (there is even some overlap of donations from corporate donors who seem to be covering their bases) and it’s certainly true that radical solutions to our most pressing problems remain beyond the pale as far as both parties are concerned. Even so, the major parties come together on noteworthy legislation so rarely that it’s almost as if they must be forced by outside circumstances to play nice together, and the constituencies they represent couldn’t be further apart.

It’s that last bit that is the most frightening to consider. I’m sure there must be a handful of officially undecided “I hate politics” people out there who will make up their minds on election day based on some ephemeral criteria such as how their perception of the economy differs from last year, or what side of the bed they rolled out of that morning. But for the most part, the entrenched forces of both the Democrats and the Republicans are living in two very different bubbles. They no longer merely differ on a few quibbles in regard to a common worldview; rather, they can barely communicate because they have such different basic assumptions about the way the world works that they may as well have come from different planets, and worse yet, they are not at all incentivized to listen to each other.

Under these circumstances, it is not at all difficult to imagine how easily a second American civil war could break out. All it would take are a few irregularities around the election in November, perhaps a credible threat of violence by a few bad actors on one side or the other, the intimation that the election results are illegitimate, and it could come to bloodshed. Certain elements of our society have been stockpiling ammunition for just such an event, and other elements, perhaps those who eschew weaponry, would be soft and squishy targets.

The best way to avoid this degree of unpleasantness is for as many of us as possible to make an honest effort to communicate and understand the other side. The Trump campaign is so popular because, whether he means what he says or not, he is saying words that his supporters have longed to hear for years. Finally, they feel seen and heard by a major political candidate. With their dignity exported along with their jobs and the (not unfounded) fear that America is changing away from them, one thing they crave is respect, so they wrap themselves in the flag that represents the old glory of the country they love. This appears worthy of mockery to folks on the Left, who can more easily perceive the way that unscrupulous politicians and plutocrats use the appearance of patriotism to manipulate and deceive the people for whom that message resonates.

The Left’s affection is more about knowing that our country has flaws, and that we can and should do better. While the unquestioning acceptance on the Right (sometimes mocked with the term “Murika!”) looks simpleminded to the other side, the Left’s tendency toward self-examination and guilt-finding as a country appears as a lack of patriotism, akin to betrayal, to the red, white and blue Right. How ironic that the protests of people like Colin Kaepernick, who perceive deep-seated flaws in the culture, provoke such wrath in those who want to “Make America Great Again,” implying that they don’t really believe it’s perfect right now, just as it is, either.

The rift between the “Two Americas” is deep and wide, and nearly impossible to bridge. But we must try to build that bipartisan connection. There is a rocky road ahead, with dangers coming towards us from within and without, and, as Benjamin Franklin said, “We must, indeed, all hang together or, most assuredly, we shall all hang separately.” If we come to blows, it will not be just North versus South like before, it will be county versus county and neighbor versus neighbor. Putting aside our differences, or at least empathizing with them, is the only way we will survive as a nation.  I wish I knew if that was even a goal anymore.


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