It is killing our country’s character, our sense of who we are. We have traded our signature pragmatism for cynicism, rage, and indifference. Our ideologies have made us a nation of enemies, as fractured as shattered glass.
This is not a piece about conservatives versus liberals. It is not about Donald Trump versus Joe Biden. It is not about evangelical Christians versus everyone else. It is about our being divided perhaps beyond repair. And we are all to blame.
We have become a nation of “yeah, but…” That’s what we say when we don’t want to admit that someone from The Other Side has been wronged. It is also what we say when someone from Our Side is wrong. Because ideology is not about doing the right thing. It is just about being right.
And so my liberal friends dismiss Tara Reade. She has accused Joe Biden of sexually assaulting her when she worked as a staff assistant in his office in the early 1990s. He says it never happened.
Yeah, but there are larger stakes here, liberals say. Do we want another four years of Trump?
Yeah, but this is a false equivalence, they say. At least Biden isn’t accused of assaulting a dozen women, like Trump.
And “yeah, but” is what my conservative friends say when a black person endures “a medical incident” after a “police interaction.” That’s the actual language of the Minneapolis police in the wake of Monday’s killing of an unarmed man named George Floyd.
“I can’t breathe,” Floyd said, as an officer kneeled on his neck.
These victims never get the benefit of the doubt. Because ideology gives no quarter, offers no grace. The Enemy is always guilty. Of something.
Yeah, but Ahmaud Arbery did stop at that construction site (for three minutes) before continuing his jog. Yeah, but Trayvon Martin shouldn’t have worn a hoodie.
As black people, we have our own version of “yeah, but….” It comes in the shape of an ideology that condemns all white people, no matter their experience, as racists. It views some minorities as “privileged.” And it rejects contrary points of view.
So a poor white man cannot possibly identify with the struggles of a black American. Asians are not “one of us.” A black conservative is a sellout.
And then we come to evangelicals who support Trump. They have allowed ideology to so smother their faith that they dismiss his corruption and indecency and meanness because they say he serves a “bigger mission.” So: Yeah, but it’s all about the Supreme Court. Yeah, but he stands up for America. Yeah, but at least he is not Hillary Clinton.
Ideology infects virtually all of American life. Our gun laws. Our public education system. Whether we believe in climate change. How we report the news. How we consume the news. Whether we vaccinate our children. How we respond to the pandemic. No issue is immune.
Wearing a mask now suggests I hate Trump and want to see the economy closed for the forseeable future. Going to a crowded beach signals that I hate the elderly and minorities and just want everyone to go back to making as much money as possible. Like, now.
There is truth in both caricatures. But it’s not the truth. Reality rejects both extremes. Given that 38.6 million Americans have filed unemployment claims—12 percent of our population—it is hard to believe anyone wants to see the economy remain paralyzed. And going to a crowded beach doesn’t mean I want people to die. I may just be sun-starved, longing for a bit of saltwater and sand.
How did it come to this?
It does not help that we now believe all opinions are created equal. This too is the fault of both the Left and the Right, as Michiko Kakutani points out in her insight book, The Death of Truth. Both sides ditched truth for ideology as a way to mock the Establishment, win votes and draw ratings and now clicks. And ideology pays: Purveyors of fake news can pull six-figure incomes.
Racial backlash is also a culprit. It is a pattern throughout American history. Jim Crow laws terrified black Americans after the Civil War. The civil rights movement galvanized the “law and order” crowd, which handed Richard Nixon two terms as president. And Barack Obama’s eight years in power spawned enough fear and resentment to catapult Trump into the White House.
Economic inequality has likely further nourished our collective fury. In Deaths of Despair and the Future of Capitalism, preeminent economists Angus Deaton and Anne Case note that from 1979 to 2017, median income for white men without a bachelor’s degree lost 13 percent of its purchasing power. At the same time, our national income per capita shot up by 85 percent.
“The prolonged decline in wages is one of the fundamental forces working against less educated Americans,” they write, adding that “Deterioration in job quality, and detachment from the labor force, bring miseries over and above the loss of earnings.”
There is hope. Once in a while, there are those who defy “yeah,but” culture.
We see it in William Kristol, the influential neoconservative analyst and writer, who tweeted a few months ago, “For the time being one has to say: We are all Democrats now.”
There was Mitt Romney, the lone Republican senator to convict Trump during the president’s impeachment trial.
And, until last week, there was the studied restraint of Obama himself. His recent commencement address aside, the former president has been reluctant to publicly flog his successor.
That may not be a surprise. It was, after all, Obama who famously told the 2004 Democratic National Convention, “We worship an awesome God in the Blue States, and we don’t like federal agents poking around in our libraries in the Red States. We coach Little League in the Blue States, and, yes, we’ve got some gay friends in the Red States…We are one people, pledging allegiance to the Stars and Stripes, all of us defending the United States of America.”
The New Testament story of the Good Samaritan holds special relevance today. It is Jesus’ response to an expert in religious law who asks, “Who is my neighbor?”
In the parable, bandits leave a Jewish man half-dead on the roadside. Two people pass by, ignoring him. Then comes along the Samaritan, who bandages his wounds, takes him to an inn for care and lodging, and covers the bill. No questions asked.
He does not say, “Yeah, but Jews and Samaritans have been at odds for centuries….” Or, “Yeah, but what were you doing in this neighborhood?”
This is the antidote to what’s ailing us: common sense and compassion.
In the past that combination showed itself in our stubborn pragmatism, our true civic religion. It is why traditionally our presidential candidates tacked to the center if they wanted to win in November. It is why so many Americans still admire Abraham Lincoln, the ultimate pragmatist.
Lincoln did not want to win the Civil War because he liked black people. The Union had to win to save the country. A divided people could not stand.
In his second inaugural address, a few weeks before the war’s end, the president despised by so many for freeing the slaves embodied a spirit of generosity, urging “malice toward none with charity for all.” His response to today’s madness would be simple: Yeah, but we’re all Americans.
We do well to follow Lincoln’s long-ago example. Otherwise, our nation’s ideals will crumble away and eventually die. Our ideologies will have killed them.
Stephen Buckley is a former managing editor of the St. Petersburg (now Tampa Bay) Times, and former dean of faculty at the Poynter Institute, which owns the Times.