It is hard for an Australian to really comprehend the forces that shape the thinking of Americans. While Australia certainly has it’s fair share of irresponsible media coverage, divisive issues and poor leadership, the country as a whole is actually fairly whole. Pauline Hanson is not Donald Trump (no matter what she believes), Centrelink is not Obama Care and Crikey is not Breitbart. To be honest our politics is much less interesting… in a good way.
America is divided in a way that Australia simply isn’t, so I have spent the last four and a half years in North America a bit bewildered by what I see on CNN, Fox News and MSNBC.
This morning I heard something that was extremely helpful at a number of levels. Since becoming addicted to “the West Wing”, one of my favourite television shows has been Meet the Press. The host, Chuck Todd, has recently started a podcast called 1947 (after the year that MTP started), where he seems to have longer form, more informative dialogues than is possible on the one hour show.
Today Todd posted a conversation between himself and President George Bush’s former press secretary, Ari Fleischer. Chuck was attempting to argue that the media wasn’t systemically biased, and Fleischer systematically demonstrated why he was wrong. A key insight for me was when Fleischer said:
Chuck I submit to you it isn’t intentional, it’s natural, and that’s even worse.
It’s just reflective of a worldview that reporter’s have. Where I’ve been on sets, I’ve been talking to reporters and you just see them roll their eyes, “How can anybody be for Trump?”
It’s an institutional thought that is pervasive throughout journalism and it goes back decades frankly. I think it’s hit its peak with Donald Trump because reporters find him so personally offensive and ideologically offensive, and they let it rip.
Fleischer came across as very grounded in reality and gave numerous examples that Todd simply had no comeback for. By the end of the conversation, both of them seemed to agree that the “main-stream” media had a “left-wing” bias. At the end of the interview, Presidential advisor Steve Bannon’s claim that the media was the real opposition seemed a little less crazy than it initially sounded.
What seems to be happening is that the American media is only just starting to become aware that they are not completely objective.
I almost laughed out loud as I watched CNN’s Anderson Cooper who looked shocked and hurt last night when he, and the media in general were accused of being biased. His defence was that Newsrooms were more “diverse” than ever.
For Cooper, “diverse” meant people from different ethnic backgrounds and people of different sexual orientations… however, as Fleischer pointed out to Todd, very few newsrooms have any socially conservative people at all, most of whom would not be excited by what Cooper calls diverse.
Anderson Cooper is biased, he just hasn’t realized it yet.
Whether we like it or not we have what Fleischer calls a “natural” way of seeing the world which is the grid through which we pass everything, and that grid is self perpetuating.
Our natural way of seeing the world determines who we spend time with, what media we consume and whether we think Donald Trump is a good or bad thing for the world.
The challenge for America is that self-sorting process is more pronounced than in other places like Australia. One study  estimates that 27% of the American population do not know any specific socially conservative person that they trust. 37% don’t know a socially liberal person they trust. 51% of the population knows no African-American that they trust, 50% knows no Hispanic that they trust, and 76% knows no Asian that they trust.
What is most concerning about these statistics is that America is one of the countries with the highest percentage of people who claim to follow the person who instructed his followers to love their enemies and pray for those that persecuted them (Matthew 5:43-45). Sadly, the same study that showed the divisions in society showed that American Christians tend to be much less likely to build bridges to people who were not like them than the general population.
America is divided. For Conservative Christians, those who are socially progressive are the enemy. For people who are socially progressive, Conservative Christians are the enemy.
The core issues where these enemies fight are abortion, immigration and gun reform, however those are not the real issue. The real issue is that both sides are biased and can’t see their own biases.
The only way to get past your own blindness is to learn to love your enemies.
It is imperative for Conservative Christians to love the people are fighting to maintain abortion rights… until they do, they will never understand and the only option open to them will be a power struggle.
It is vital that Progressive people learn to love the people fighting for their guns. Until they do they will never understand them and the only option open will be to seek to control them.
When love goes missing, Coercive Power is all that is left. As I wrote in 6 Radical Decisions:
Sociologist Willard Waller contended that there was an inverse relationship between love and power. He called this insight the “principle of least interest.” Waller contended that in any relationship, the person who has the most personal power exercises the least amount of love, and the person who loves the most has the least personal power.
When you truly love someone, you hand them power to affect you. If you want to limit people’s affect on you, the only real way to do that is by withholding love, and as Waller points out, in withholding love from others you also limit your ability to receive love
Loving doesn’t mean agreeing, it just means allowing the real world of another person to enter yours and caring for them as a person.
N.T. Wright nailed it when he said “the highest form of knowledge is love,” because until you start to love you have only got your own biased worldview, and you will seek to perpetuate your own way of seeing things “naturally”, without ever being conscious of it.
One of the great things that Chuck Todd did in inviting Ari Fliescher into the studio for the free dialogue, was that he genuinely gave Fliescher the space to articulate the world as he saw it. As I heard the conversation unfold, I think Todd probably away from the exchange with an expanded, and slightly less biased worldview.
We all need to find ways to have these kind of conversations. I think this is what Jesus had in mind when he instructed his followers to love their enemies…
All that said, I still think the U.S.A. can teach us a lot about a healthy democracy. There is an aspect of the way they do things that Australia could really learn from.
The way Americans have grounded the story of their country in very strong symbols that remind them of the values of their democracy is truly remarkable. These symbols are venerated in a way that is hard for an Australian to understand. I can’t think of any symbols related to the government that Australians have strong feelings about.
Americans have visual symbols such as the Lincoln, Jefferson and Washington Memorials, the White House, the Capitol building, the Oval Office, the presidential libraries scattered across the country, the bible on which the President is sworn in, the Liberty Bell, the statues and paintings of past presidents and heroes that decorate the landscape, and of course their flag.
Americans also have all kinds of symbolic rituals such as the whole inauguration day, the pledge of allegiance, the 4th July, the continual references to the constitution and its amendments (different sides of the political spectrum tend to focus on different amendments) and the speeches that they keep reciting (Gettysburg, I have a dream, All we have to fear…. etc) that remind them of the values of their democracy.
While I believe that some of those core American values are badly flawed (as I have written about previously), the cultural value of those symbols and rituals is immense and part of the reason why this democracy will probably survive the huge rift that is now blatantly obvious to everyone.
 Thomas A. DiPrete Segregation in Social Networks American Journal of Sociology (Jan 2011),1270