Sunday, October 11, 2020

Things I Believe Are True

We are living through an election year. Election years always feel like divisive times in American society – each one, it seems, a little more so than the last. Even given that trend, this year feels different.

In a time like this, how do we have conversations about the future of our communities? We can’t have the kinds of conversations we used to, in which we discussed and argued about policies and ideas. Once upon a time, debating health care meant talking about the pros and cons of market-based systems and single-payer plans, about the appropriate role of government. Those debates are long gone.


Public discourse, such as it is, has largely been reduced to name-calling, vitriol, anger, and threats – not just in campaigning but in governing. Some of those threats take the form of action. Protests turn violent. People show up at protests armed, expecting and planning for violence. The original sin of racism has become too blatant for anyone to ignore. People have lost their lives because we can’t talk to each other. 


In this chaos, most reasonable people – and despite appearances, that’s most people in our society – have taken to one of two options. They either talk about politics and the public life only with those who share their views (a task made easier by social media). Or they talk about it not at all.


Both choices are doing us no good. 


This post is an attempt to find another path. I have no idea if it will have any impact or not. But trying seems better than not trying.


I don’t want to talk about the election, because I don’t think the election itself is the most important thing. Yes, it matters who wins and who loses. But other things matter more. If the “right” person wins (whoever you think that person is) and the country continues to descend into vitriol and anger, to draw farther and farther apart by race and wealth and ability and privilege and all the divisions we have created, then who is in the White House will matter much less than who we are (or are not) as a community. Who’s in government is irrelevant if we are ungovernable.


Rather than making arguments about policies, or even facts, I want to try to identify truths – things that I believe are fundamentally true, and which matter a great deal. Perhaps that’s a different kind of ground on which to have a conversation.


Things I Believe To Be True


I believe that Thomas Merton was right when he said that “In all things visible there is … a hidden wholeness.” That beneath all distinctions and divisions there lies a wisdom that everything is connected. That we, and everything and everyone around us, are all part of the whole.


I believe that the best term we have come up with for this hidden wholeness is love.


I believe that the most important thing about public life – about our life together as a community – is not the policies we adopt, as important as those are. The most important thing is who we are to each other. We have a choice, individually and collectively, to live together and be love to each other or to live divided and fear each other. Policies flow from that choice.


I believe that the divisions we see in our society – race, gender, class, wealth, privilege, disability, and so many others – are creations of our own making. Which means we have the power to un-make them.


I believe that when we espouse, in various languages and traditions and frames, that all are created in the image and likeness of God, that actually means something. Everything, and every person, is capable of love. And everything and everyone can be loved.


I believe that division among people – not difference, but division – harms everybody. It is not only blacks or Latinx or other people of color in the United States who are harmed by racism; whites are too. It is not only the poor who are damaged by classism; so are the wealthy and privileged. 


Difference does not have to mean division. Communities can foster and celebrate difference and use it as a strength. 


I believe that conflict, based on division, is likewise our creation. It is not pre-ordained or inherent in the universe. The universe is fundamentally connected. Cooperation and coordination are far more “natural” than the conflicts we generate.


I believe that conflict is ultimately created out of fear – our fears of others, which are usually just projections of our own fears of ourselves and of the suffering and loss which is a necessary component of all life. 


I also believe that one does not have to have fear to suffer from it. Plenty of us suffer because of the fears of others.


I believe that any vision of the public life of the community which requires conformity – of thought, of race, of creed, of culture – is doomed to failure. Seeking “purity” of any kind is a fool’s errand which only causes more suffering. Difference exists – we can either deny that and increase our and others’ suffering, or we can accept it and build together from there.


I believe that justice is not justice unless it is available to “the least of these”, to the hungry and the poor and the marginalized. This is not merely a Christian notion, though it is obviously that. It is echoed in every great religious and humanist tradition of human civilization. 


Finally, I believe that if we don’t learn to talk to each other – past the divisions we have created and the anger we wear like armor and the fear that we hide from ourselves – then, in the words of the great philosopher Theodor Seuss Geisel, “Nothing is going to get better. It’s not.”

Saturday, March 28, 2020

The Coxswain as Leader

In my line of work I think a lot about leadership. What makes a good leader? What makes for effective leadership? How can I be a better leader, and a better follower, where I am right now?

On a seemingly separate note I have been participating in a virtual Lenten series this year that has drawn material from a book, The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics by Daniel James Brown. In the series we have read snippets of the book and have talked about rowing as a metaphor for life as a whole.

In the kind of eight-oar shell discussed in the book, there are nine people: eight rowers (each with a distinctive role to play) and a coxswain, or cox. The cox rides in the back of the boat, calls the pace for the rowers to follow, and steers the shell. In that sense, the cox looks very much like a leader.

But being a good cox is not about barking orders (though that's what it looks like on the surface). I think there are a number of lessons that leaders can learn by looking at what it takes to be a good cox:

• Coxes are always the smallest person in the boat. This is to reduce weight and drag, to make the boat lighter and therefore faster. Good leadership is often about not being a drag on your organization and not letting your weight get in the way.

• Coxes don't actually move the boat forward. A cox, sitting alone in a shell and calling time, accomplishes nothing. It is the oarswomen or oarsmen who actually make the boat move. Leaders must recognize that the success of their organizations relies on the efforts of others far more than on their own.

• The cox steers the boat with a small rudder mechanism. This mechanism can be easily overmatched by what the rowers are doing. If the rowers are pushing the boat one way and the cox trying to steer another, the rowers win (and sometimes the rudder breaks). A leader's ability to steer an organization is only as good as her or his ability to get the people doing things in the organization to agree on where things should go.

• The speed of a shell is ultimately a function of swing - a state in which each of the rowers is performing her task to the best of her ability and also in perfect synchrony with the others. Each is an individual and each has her own strengths and distinctive characteristics, yet all are harmonized together. It is the job of the cox to create and sustain this state. Leadership is not about being "in charge". It is about getting groups to work together with each other in ways that not only maximize their own individual potential and ability, but harmonize with each other.

It takes a long time, a lot of practice, and a lot of work for a crew to develop swing. Many never do. In the absence of this state, coxes can yell louder or faster, but the result is generally not a faster shell. Worse, faster and louder yelling by the cox can cause the entire boat to capsize and the rowers to get hurt.

In this time of crisis, our organizations are discovering the truth about ourselves. Our leaders are yelling louder and faster, and steering our boats in suddenly new directions. The organizations that have done the long, slow, laborious work of developing themselves, of tuning their capacity for swing, will do OK in a crisis. Those that have not will flounder still more.

There's one last observation about leadership-as-coxswain. It's not about the individual leader. The best cox in the world could step into a shell with eight rowers she doesn't know and produce terrible results. Coxes only succeed based on the relationships they have built with their rowers and the relationships they have fostered among the rowers themselves. Hiring a great cox won't make the boat faster. Hiring one with the right skills and mindset, and letting that leader do the work over the long haul, will.

Monday, March 23, 2020

Competence Matters

It's been over a year since I've written anything on this blog. Why this is so is a matter for another time. And I don't know how often I will continue writing, if at all.

I'm returning to writing today to state the obvious, in the hopes that if enough of us say this it will have some impact. I hope lots of other people will say it too. It's not an original thought to me - I'm just one voice in the chorus.

The lesson we are facing, as we all go into lockdown to try to slow the spread of a pandemic that may overwhelm our hospitals and kill hundreds of thousands of Americans and millions around the world, is simple: when it comes to government, competence matters.

In the American context, competence matters more than party. It matters more than whether we identify with the Red tribe or the Blue tribe. It matters more than any of the hundred "hot-button" issues we like to argue so passionately about. All of those issues, and all of those divides, will still be there tomorrow.

In short, everything we have been focused on in our politics for the last several years is irrelevant. And if we keep conducting our politics on that basis, they too will become irrelevant.

This is important, because one faction within one political party - the Republican Party - has been trying to argue that competence doesn't matter. This is not a partisan dig, nor a new discovery. It's simply an observation. Some Republicans, from Newt Gingrich (at times) to Grover Norquist to a host of others, have been selling their supporters on the notion that Government is Always Bad. That the best thing to do with government is to shrink it down small enough to be drowned in a bathtub (to borrow Norquist's colorful phrase).

We now see the consequences of that view. Beyond their wildest hopes and dreams, this view has helped elect an administration, and create a host of believers, who eschew science, who replace expertise and knowledge with loyalty, and who view facts as either weapons or conspiracies of the enemy.

Because of that, this pandemic will be worse in the United States than it needed to be. Because of that, thousands of people will die who didn't need to die.

Governments exist in large part as insurance against exactly this kind of event. Pandemics are natural disasters on the grandest scale. They demand a collective response. Collective action requires a coordination point and enforcement. Only effective government can provide effective collective action.

This will not be the last pandemic. There will be more, just as there will be other events that demand a collective response.

Later this year we will hold elections. There are people in both parties who believe in competence. New York's Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat, is one. Ohio's Mike DeWine, a Republican, is another. Find these people and elect them. Elect more like them. Vote out anyone who has shown indifference, even hostility, to competence - to facts and science and what is real.

Lives are depending on it.

Thursday, March 7, 2019

"Free Speech in Higher Education": Not about Higher Education, and Not About Free Speech

Those of us in higher education got an earful about one particular bit of President Trump's CPAC speech, regarding his pledge to create an executive order restricting federal research funds to campuses that don't "protect free speech". Here's one story among many from the higher ed press:
Legal Scholars Don’t Know the Details of Trump’s Order on Campus Speech. But They Think It’s a Mistake.
This issue has been buzzing around the political sphere for while now, usually in discussions on the conservative or Republican side. Accusations have been flying about how there is a "crisis" in free speech in higher education.

Here's my take: there is no crisis. This isn't about higher education. And it isn't about free speech.

The poster child for this "crisis" of late has been Hayden Williams, an activist with an organization called Turning Point USA, a conservative group that recruits on college campuses. Williams was at an event on the UC-Berkeley campus last year when he was punched by another individual. The event was captured on camera and broadcast across the internet, where it quickly became fodder among conservative commentators as evidence of the "crisis of free speech" on campuses. The President brought Williams up on stage during his CPAC speech to illustrate the "crisis" he's trying to address.

I think the Williams case is actually the perfect example of the broader issue. Williams is not a student at UC-Berkeley - indeed, he has no affiliation with the university at all. He is a private citizen who came onto the campus from outside to use it as a platform for the message he wanted to promulgate.

The man who punched Williams was also not a student, nor affiliated with UC-Berkeley in any way. He was another private citizen who had come onto campus from outside, presumably to oppose or object to Williams' views. Or maybe he was just passing by.

So this isn't about higher education at all. This encounter could just as well have occurred in a public park, or on a street corner, or in the local post office. If it had, I doubt we would be talking about a "crisis in free speech in our public parks".

Moreover, Berkeley did exactly what any institution committed to free speech would do. It openly permitted Mr. Williams to come onto campus and speak and made no attempt to curtail or constrain that speech. Its police promptly arrested the man who threw the punch. Allowing that UC-Berkeley is a government entity, and that the right of free speech is a right to be free from government interference in speech, there was nothing about this incident that involved what we would consider constraints on free speech. The problem here was about civility, not government (or university) constraints on speech.

Finally, this is nowhere near the definition of a "crisis". There are between 3000 and 4000 institutions of higher education in this country. Every day, in every one of them, there are robust conversations about all sorts of things. If you were to add up all of the public incidents about "free speech" on college campuses over the past year, they wouldn't amount to more than a dozen or two, most involving small groups of students (if they involve students at all). Out of three million+ college students, a couple dozen is a rounding error, not a crisis.

Polls of the broader population show that large percentages of Republican-identifying adults believe that college professors are out to indoctrinate students with liberal ideas and suppress conservatives. These polls are meaningless, because they are asking these questions of a population that isn't actually in college and has no direct knowledge of what's going on on campuses. Moreover, well over 50% of that population has never been to college, so they don't even have their own past experiences to draw on. All these polls show is the power of media persuasion to get people to believe something in the absence of any direct evidence or experience.

So any executive order (if there is one, and if it is crafted to actually be implementable) will be a solution in search of a problem, a symbolic act designed for purposes that have nothing to do with what it's supposedly about. Which is a perfect statement about our politics today: angry, tribal symbolism disconnected from reality - at best, a distraction; at worst, an obstacle to us trying to build the society we really want to live in.

Thursday, January 31, 2019

Not Every Victory is a Victory

The title of this piece was quoted to me by a friend. We were discussing a situation that seems common these days: a public negotiation that has become a game of Chicken.

For those not familiar with the game-theory construct of Chicken, it's a two-player game in which each side tries to get the other to concede first. The typical narrative is two cars racing towards each other head-on. The loser is the one that swerves out of the way first to avoid a collision. One "wins" at Chicken by convincing the other side that your side is willing to risk total destruction if you don't get your way. In game theory matrix terms, Chicken looks like this:

If one player swerves (gives in) and the other doesn't, there's a clear winner and a clear loser. If both swerve, there's a tie but neither wins anything. Both continuing straight ends in disaster.

The recent budget negotiation between Congress (in particular, Congressional Democrats) and the White House could be modeled this way. Indeed, many did characterize the period of the shutdown as just this kind of test of wills - who would "swerve" first? And it seems that both sides saw themselves as engaged in Chicken, as both engaged in various commitment behaviors to try to convince the other side of their willingness to risk a Crash.

In this narrative, the Democrats "won" and the President "lost", because he was seen as swerving first (by agreeing to reopen the government without border wall funding). This game may get replayed again in three weeks - we'll see what happens in the next round, if there is one.

On the local level, I've been watching a similar Chicken game at my former employer. Tenure-track faculty (represented by an AAUP chapter) have gone on strike against what they regard as an unfair, imposed contract (18 months of negotiations failed to produce an agreement). Both sides have dug in, although the last couple of days have seen negotiations that may bear fruit.

The problem with applying the Chicken game framework to real-world situations isn't that it doesn't capture the dynamics of the two sides. The artificial model misses out on important parts of reality. Two real-world dynamics, in particular, are missing from the matrix. And when we forget about these things, then what we might think of as a victory really isn't.

First, as with most game-theory constructs the Chicken payoff matrix is set up as a single-play game. The "racing cars" metaphor is a one-time event - players play, there's an outcome, you're done. But life is not a single-play game - life is an iterated game. In most cases, you will interact with the same people tomorrow that you interact with today. Regardless of the outcome of a particular game, the choice of game itself and the strategies in it impact the relationship.

This is where Chicken is particularly problematic, because Chicken destroys relationships. In order to be willing to play Chicken at all, you have to take the position that you would rather die (or suffer horrifically bad consequences) than let the other side win. Once you make that statement, the other side will likely never trust you again. Playing this game at all - regardless of the outcome - largely closes off future opportunities for cooperation, because who would cooperate with someone with that value structure?

The second problem with Chicken in the real world is that, unlike in the game metaphor, the consequences of the game aren't borne by the players. Playing Chicken in a public environment doesn't mean being willing to absorb punishment oneself so much as being willing to inflict harm on bystanders that aren't in the game at all.

The Federal government shutdown was a classic example of this. 800,000 federal workers, and perhaps more than 1,000,000 contractors, went without paychecks for a month. The latter group will never recoup that lost money. Regardless of who "won", those people all lost. And that's not counting the ripple effects throughout the economy, as spending dropped and families became anxious. Standard & Poor's estimated that the shutdown evaporated about $6 billion from the US economy.

A faculty strike has the same dynamics. Yes, faculty who strike do suffer (unless the union has built up a Strike Fund, they go without pay for some period of time), as does the administration (which must scramble to figure out how to cover or substitute classes). But the real losers are the students. If you take seriously that what faculty do in the classroom matters, then some number of students are being robbed of the educational opportunity for which they have paid and arranged their lives. The longer the strike goes on (it's now into its second week as of this writing), the greater that cost is. A "crash" scenario means that some could lose the entire semester, setting their lives back by six months at least.

This is why even the "winners" in Chicken aren't really winners. There are no heroes in this game, only tragic victims and fools. As the movie War Games put it so many year ago:

Thursday, January 3, 2019

What Do You Believe?

I've spent a lot of time thinking about belief lately, and the ways in which beliefs shape our lives and our behavior. What we believe tends to drive what we do - whether we know it or not.

During the 2008 Democratic Presidential primaries, Hillary Clinton famously criticized Barack Obama's "Hope and Change" slogan with the zingy one-liner, "Hope is not a strategy." The attack failed, of course, and Obama went on to win both the primaries and the election.

Electoral history aside, the important thing here is that Clinton's critique missed the entire point. People don't seek hope in place of a strategy or a how-to manual. People are drawn to hope because they believe in something. Belief is necessary, and then strategy follows. One quote (variously attributed to different sources) puts it this way:

If you want to build a ship, don't drum up people to collect wood and don't assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.

Our beliefs and desires are what really motivate us. Everything else is details.

We live in an increasingly belief-free age - or one in which our beliefs are becoming smaller and smaller. On the political stage, "1000 Points of Light" and "Yes We Can" (beliefs in America meant, however imperfectly, for everyone) have been replaced with "Make America Great Again" (with a decidedly smaller and less inclusive "America").

We don't believe our politicians anymore (for many good reasons). We also don't believe in corporations, or religious institutions, or government, or indeed very much else. Polls about Americans' trust in various groups and institutions are usually referenced with regard to what is higher or lower than what, but the overall trend of trust - of belief that someone or something will be good - is down.

Given how politicians, and corporations, and religious leaders, and just about everyone else in the public eye have behaved over the past couple of decades, this decline in belief in understandable. It's hard to believe in things that disappoint or betray you.

But it's also hard to live without belief. Most of us do, in fact, believe some things about the world, though we may not be aware of those beliefs. If we believe that other people are fundamentally untrustworthy, we will act accordingly. If we believe that institutions cannot be trusted, we will not trust them. If we believe that some people ("them") are worth less than others ("us"), we will treat them worse.

I see this in professional life as well. I have worked for a number of colleges and universities over time. Those that have tended to do best, or at least those that have tended to be the most enjoyable to work for, were those where people both in leadership and throughout the organization believed in the institution and its work. People who believe in a place act like as if the institution is both good and capable of being better. People who don't act as if it's lousy and can't get any better.

The problem with a decline in belief is that things get worse for everyone. People trust less and distrust more; listen less and filter information more; cooperate less and attack more.

For all its simplicity, Prisoner's Dilemma still has a lot to teach us. I think its enduring power is because the PD dynamic captures something fundamental about life. In nearly all arenas, and certainly in all communities, we are all collectively better off when we cooperate and we are all collectively worse off when we defect. The more we defect, the poorer (socially, economically, emotionally, and spiritually) we all become.

What can be done? Here, the PD model does offer some hope. The best strategy over the long haul in PD is Tit-for-Tat (TFT). A lot of folks think of TFT in terms of its reactive nature - when someone else defects on me, I defect back at them. That's the part of TFT that our cynical age can get behind.

But the real power of TFT is the opening move, which is always to cooperate. When we begin with cooperation, good things happen. Not every time, and not perfectly. But in the end, it's the only choice that will make things any better.

We cooperate when we share something in common - interests, values, goals, beliefs. When we long for the sea together, we will figure out how to build a ship together, because the sea is our goal. When we believe that our community, or our company, or our nation can be made better - and (crucially) when we agree on what "better" means - then we will find a way to work towards that end. We don't cooperate because cooperation is good for us, we cooperate because we want to accomplish something.

In too many places, we have stopped having conversations about what we believe in, or what we hope for. In a cynical age, we see belief as something for "suckers", for "losers", for people who "don't get it". And so we believe in nothing, or we fall back on unexamined beliefs that often reflect our fears and insecurities rather than our better angels.

These are the conversations we need to have. We need to talk again about belief as if belief were something worth having. We need to talk about hope as if hope were a real thing.

We are far more powerful than we realize in this way: when we believe that hope is dead, then our belief becomes true. But if we believe that hope is alive and worth nourishing, then it becomes so immediately.

I know which world I want to live in. And so, I believe.

Saturday, November 10, 2018

Who We Are: Reflections on the 2018 Election

Since we're in the post-election season of "what did it all mean?", I might as well throw my thoughts into the arena. Finding meaning in events is one of the most important things we do, because the meanings we construct become the world we inhabit.

I would start with an observation. We think of elections as tools, as moments when we can change who we are as a society. While this is true to some degree, I think it is more the case that elections are mirrors that who reveal who we were already but perhaps failed to recognize.

Lot of folks want to characterize elections as a referendum on either people or policies. Both can be true to a point - there are some single-issue voters (though not many), and there are some voters who become particularly attached to (or repulsed by) a particular political figure. Political parties know this, and spend a lot of time trying to make these the salient points, because these are things they can try to control.

Elections, it should be noted, are also about a ton of local things. Trying to look across a landscape of 435 House races, ~33 Senate races, and a number of state governorships to find some common theme is a bit of a fool's errand. Tip O'Neill was largely right - a lot of politics is indeed local.

Nevertheless, this set of midterms more than most had a national flavor to it. Much of that was driven by a White House far more active not only in campaigning, but in trying to drive the agenda and the conversation. Much of that agenda, especially in the final weeks of the campaign, turned on issues of immigration, which are really issues about Identity - who is Us and who is Them.

This surprises no one, because the Us/Them theme has been central to the current President since the moment he started campaigning (and, likely, for many years before that). Donald Trump has never been accused of being a "big tent" sort of person, and I don't know that he's ever given a speech, the primary theme of which was what unites Americans. That's a significant departure - every past President, Republican and Democrat, has given some version of that speech, usually many times. Think of Ronald Reagan's "City on a Hill" or Bill Clinton's "Bridge to the 21st Century" or Barack Obama's "there is no 'Red America' and 'Blue America'", or George W's impromptu bullhorn speech after 9/11.

So with the Who We Are question on the ballot this year, what do the election results tell us?

The results should surprise no one: they revealed a divided country. Many millions of Americans still believe in America as the land of equal opportunity, the "nation of immigrants" that embraces people from all around the world in tolerance and community, the America of "bring me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses". Particularly in the cities but increasingly in the suburbs as well, this America has reacted very negatively to the President's approach and to a message of division and exclusion.

Yet many other millions of Americans believe in a different America - one that in which people like them are (or should be) the dominant group, where their particular race or culture sets the standard, where people who do not fit that mold are to be feared, or subjugated, or driven away. Their America, they believe, is under threat from Them. They believe that the central challenge of this time is to drive back that threat, already far advanced, so that things will be Great Again. There is some of this view everywhere, of course, but it is more concentrated in rural areas and smaller communities, often themselves very homogeneous.

The latter group has known about the former for a long time. Folks in rural areas have always been subjected to the cultural pressures of the city, especially over the last century as mass communication (radio, television) has driven much of our national communication and entertainment. This group didn't particularly like the changes it saw, coming from the more urbanized, wealthy, and liberal America, but they were always aware of them.

The former group, however, has been quite surprised in recent years by the size, even the existence, of the latter. Many well-educated urban and suburbanites have been convinced, between their own daily existence and their presence in mass media, that their cosmopolitan view of the world was the dominant one, and that other views were dwindling if not mostly dead. The tendency of urban centers to view less-populated areas as "flyover country" didn't help much.

When elections were contested on policies and well-known personalities, this divide didn't matter a lot. Politicians could selectively play on it, but tended to stick to other alignments more in keeping with their vision of political parties as aggregations of policy preferences (tax cuts vs. gov't spending, more or less regulation, guns vs. butter, that sort of thing).

To the extent that the parties are realigning around identity politics, we're starting to see where people stand on the Who We Are question much more clearly - because now it matters. Whatever else may be, Donald Trump has managed to bring this question front and center of the American political debate.

The divide of identity was already and always there. It will not go away if Trump loses the election two years from now, or even if he is impeached and thrown out of office by Feb. 15. None of this is about who the President is. It's about who we are.

In response to a number of recent events - the synagogue shooting in my old neighborhood being only the latest - many people have proclaimed, "we're better than this". They have wanted to believe that we as a nation are not violently racist, that we really do believe in the "nation of immigrants", in tolerance and acceptance and equality of opportunity. They want to believe this because they themselves believe it and had thought that this was a settled question.

Unfortunately, the statement "we're better than this" is only true for a limited definition of "we". Some of us are clearly not "better", if by "better" we mean tolerant of difference and embracing of diversity. For a host of reasons, "we" - all Americans together - don't fit that description. We are not, as a people, all at that table.

This really shouldn't surprise us, except for the power of wishful thinking. All of us want to believe that everyone else thinks the way we do, because that's a far more comfortable world to live in. Folks in the "America First" camp never had that luxury - they knew, through their televisions and movies and whatnot, that theirs was not the only view in the world. They persisted anyway, invisible to everyone else until recently.

So where do we go from here? That depends, as always, on the end goal. If we want to work towards a nation with a shared understanding of Who We Are, then we need to start listening to each other - on both sides. That will be hard, and it will take a long time, and we will have to ignore screeching politicians who want to use our different views for their own factious purposes. And it will take commitment on both sides - a genuine desire to forge a common view of America that doesn't just involve imposing our views on the other side.

An alternative is to negotiate a workable detente. In some sense, this is already happening - people are increasingly moving to areas where their view of Who We Are is better represented, separating themselves from people who think differently. To the extent that different areas have different views, and they can agree to leave each other alone, that can work.

But we all live under one government and one set of laws. Our federalist structure means that we can finesse that to a point, as long as we're willing to let other areas be different. But on some larger questions, we can't just agree to disagree and call it a day. Equality under the law means that we share the same law.

The third possibility is that the conflict itself comes to define us. Short of a genocidal civil war, identity conflicts like this aren't solvable by force (and usually, not even then). There is no "winning" in this "fight". Indeed, "fight" is really the wrong analogy entirely. No one ever succeeded in getting someone else to agree with them via a Twitter war.

So it may be that Who We Are for the foreseeable future is this: two nations, sharing space and laws, that cannot agree. I wrote back on the eve of the 2016 election that America is Dying. Looking back on that post through the lens of this election, I am afraid I was right, and that we have gone farther down that road in the years since. Our third possibility is to recognize that America, as one nation at peace with itself, is gravely ill, and to wait and hope for healing.

When we are in conflict, elections are the last thing we need. Elections do not heal, they exacerbate conflict. They can, sometimes, clarify the situation in much the same way that a biopsy can tell you if you have cancer or not. But at best they are diagnostic. They don't make things better, and they may well make things worse.

So this, then, is the real choice of our time. Not Democrats or Republicans. Not Trump or anti-Trump. Not Red or Blue. We must decide what we want to be: One Nation, or Two. The question is not whether we want to Make America Great Again. The question is, Who is America?