When it comes to economic, social, and political matters today, it is no great observation to point out that our country is very divided. Polarization has gotten to the point where we are galvanized in our views on a wide range of economic, political, and social matters, such as abortion, gun violence, border policies, climate change, and economic fairness. We just can’t agree with each other – a clear illustration of this is abortion. After the overturn of Roe last year, 50% of states, home to 52% of the population, have maintained or made laws less restrictive vs Roe. The 25 other states have made or are trying to make laws more restrictive vs. Roe. Further, our divide has become more extreme. For example, on economic fairness, some want to abandon capitalism in favor of socialism, an ideology that has never had any significant consideration in the history of our country.
How did Americans move from being so united that we elected President Reagan in 1984, who won 49 states, to where we are today? One explanation is that social media platforms enable a 24/7 barrage of information, whereby it is often difficult to tell the difference between fact, fiction, and opinion. Traditional and cable media outlets have also contributed as they have shifted to include opinion or biased programming, sometimes referred to as news (e.g., Fox News, Cable News Network (CNN)). According to a 2020 Pew Research Center survey of U.S. adults, 67% say they have little or no confidence regarding social media companies’ ability to determine which posts on their platforms should be labeled inaccurate. Further, these platforms provide the opportunity for manipulation to promote particular interests or ideologies. According to the same Pew survey, 73% of U.S. adults surveyed say it is likely that social media sites intentionally censor political viewpoints that they find objectionable.
Perhaps the biggest issue our country faces today is social media being a primary source of information that informs our opinions. Social media enables virtually anyone, including unscrupulous opportunists or people with extreme viewpoints, access to the attention of millions of people. Consider the impact of this complex information barrage on our youth. For social change leaders, this presents an opportunity to target idealistic youth and the uninformed. Some influencers push their opinions by energizing their “followers” into action to disrespect, shun, and even hate fellow citizens of other perspectives. Some of those seeking change are doing so by disparaging America itself.
When a society does not have a common vision, sometimes to the point of hate for the other side, people can become collateral damage. The biggest impact of a social divide is usually on the vulnerable and powerless. The most significant social divide in U.S. history illustrates this. The civil war was a horrific period of our history, and a repeat should be avoided at all costs. A “dis-United States” is a weaker America in a dangerous world.
We should solve these issues systematically by holding businesses, academia, social media, and political leaders accountable. For example, support laws that require content providers and media companies to disclose the genre of information on their platforms. But more is needed. Perhaps taking personal accountability to be more informed will moderate our divisiveness to the point of common rationality. As a first step to that end:
- Be Informed. Seek out, listen, and understand differing viewpoints. Know the other side so well that you can argue for it. This will enable refinement and articulation of your view. Be respectful if you choose to engage others. If your discourse becomes disrespectful, politely disengage.
- Don’t Be a Follower. Be thoughtful and reject becoming a pawn of others’ opinions. Don’t blindly repeat soundbites of “one sided only” influencers. Actively seek out what they did not tell you, perhaps missing or incomplete information. Most importantly, teach your children/teens to be thoughtful to ensure they can independently think straight and avoid simply mimicking others.
- Be Alert to and Reject Extremists. In our representative democracy, the majority rules, not influencers, paid activists, or violent mobs, trying to motivate people for personal gain. America values freedom of thought and speech, so be alert to those that don’t.
To the extent our divisiveness is due to being unknowingly biased by others, then the opinions of this generation’s cast of influencers and extremists can take a back seat to the informed majority, and united, we can peacefully and respectfully make our amazing country even better.
Kevin Redgate retired last year as U.S. Chief Investment Officer for a large global insurer. Currently, he is an advisory consultant on portfolio and insurance asset/liability management. He enjoys freelance writing on thought provoking social, economic and political matters. Kevin is married, lives in N.J. and spends free time with his family of four young adult children and his three dogs.