A tattered American flag flies over a heating business in Youngstown, Ohio on March 2, essay about population. Gibbs, a former writer and editor in chief at TIME, is Visiting Edward R.
This essay is adapted from the 2017 Theodore H. White Lecture, sponsored by the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard on November 15. I’m honored to deliver a lecture named for one of my heroes. I came to see campaigns and candidates differently after reading Teddy White’s dispatches. Those of us who operate in a Bubble, whether journalistic or academic or ideological, can easily forget that bubbles don’t conceal reality but they distort it, and it is so very easy to imagine they aren’t there. Bubbles can be delightful and diverting, except in times like these, when they can become dangerous. For reasons cultural, economic, demographic, psychographic, we are divided as a country perhaps not more, but differently than ever before.
What were once unifying institutions are declining—Rotary Clubs, churches, even malls. Unifying values, around speech and civility, freedom and fairness are shredded by rising tribal furies and passions. We have a president for whom division is not just a strategy, it’s a skill. We face enemies intent on dividing us more. Faster than we can master their meaning, we embrace technologies making that easier. Seven in ten Americans say we have reached a dangerous new low point, and are at least as divided as we were during the Vietnam war. Every day, we learn something new about the ways we are doing this to ourselves, through the choices we make, the media we consume, the immensely powerful platforms we rely on whose impact we just barely understand.
And every day we learn more about the ways our adversaries are weaponizing information and markets and new technologies, in ways that strengthen authoritarian systems and weaken democratic ones. Power looks less like a fist, more like a fingertip. So I want to use my time tonight exploring how we got here and what it means, because as far as I can see, where we are going, there are no maps. Nancy Gibbs speaks at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Shorenstein Center on Nov. For years I used to argue that America is much more purple than it seems on cable news or talk radio. Yes, we are a fractious federation full of regional tastes and cultural contrasts and eternal disputes over the proper balance between individual freedom and the common good. But I believed that the first society in history to be forged more by thought and faith than threat and force was uniquely able to adapt to change.
That the core American ideas, enshrined in our Bill of Rights, written in the blood of patriots, embraced by generations of restless immigrants, honored by servants and statesmen, tried and tested by hucksters and zealots, were more powerful than any of the forces primed to divide us. I take nothing for granted any more. 60, two thirds of whom have no savings. 4 as much on education, which sets their children up to fall further behind. Families of those who have not gone to college are breaking up nearly twice the rate of those who have gone to college. 2000, driven mainly by drugs and suicides, which sets America apart from nearly all industrialized countries. Nothing about current trends suggests this will change.
According to polling that Pew Research Center has been doing since 1994, on ten different issues like immigration and poverty and the environment, we are now far more divided by our partisan identity than any other factor. Geography is destiny The divide reflects more than how you vote or whether you own a gun or passport or a collection of Cat Stevens LPs. In the past generation we have sorted ourselves into actual comfort zones. If the adage is true that You can’t hate someone whose story you know, then it’s a problem that a growing number of Americans can look around the coffee shop or playing field or congregation or PTA meeting and see mainly people who think and vote like them, and seldom encounter, much less hear the story, of those who see the world differently. 1992 there were more than 1,000. Meanwhile the blowout counties decided by more than 50 points — went from 93 to 1,196.
The share of voters living in extreme landslide counties has quintupled. All politics has never been so local. Whether we got our news from TIME or Newsweek, Walter Cronkite or Harry Reasoner, the Times or the Journal, these were not existential choices. They represented different gates to the common ground, and how we entered mattered less than where we landed. Now the gatekeepers face competition from all the outlets that would usher us into a different reality. We see what the algorithms think we want to see, or will want to click on. And here I am going to pause and offer a qualified defense of Kellyanne Conway.
She used the phrase alternative facts on Meet the Press when discussing Sean Spicer’s provably false assessment of the inaugural crowd size. So it became a sly synonym for bald faced lies. Glass half full, glass half empty. This is not just about information. About what weight and value we assign to different events.
MSNBC says it is Senator Bob Corker warning about the instability of the president. Social platforms have made polarization easier, but they get a lot of help. Likewise journalists are all too willing treat politics as sport. Covering polls is way easier than covering people, but you very quickly lapse into who’s up, who’s down, like it’s a zero sum proposition. That’s a harmless way to view football: Either the Patriots win this weekend, or the Raiders. Because it ignores even the possibility of an outcome in which, through conscious compromise, everyone wins.