We are clearly in a divided country, but what is the nature of the divide? Each side keeps placing the other in numerous rhetorically charged categories that obscure the root of their separation. Are we divided by geography being coastal elites or fly over states, or are we merely parties like Dems or GOP? More likely we are merely optimists and pessimists. It is also likely that pessimists who take power can never flip and create optimism.
Peeling back the rhetoric, our divide is near the root of our value system where we decide to believe whether people are inherently good or bad. Always the optimist and running on a platform of hope, Obama, frequently said very plainly he believed people are inherently good. A recent NYTimes op-ed quotes an astute baptist minister from the other camp who says: “The difference between Republicans and Democrats is that Republicans believe people are fundamentally bad, while Democrats see people as fundamentally good,”.
Believing someone to be inherently good or bad has profound impact on policy. Pessimists, often religious, do not think all people are bad, but all are bad until they are saved or reborn. If you are not saved, you do not deserve a safety net. To walk among the unsaved, you need a gun at all time in any space. Pessimism often runs with paranoia and can give way to resentment and vindictive policy where integrity and constitutional beliefs are too easily sacrificed to punish the other camp.
Common sense says that the economy is more likely to grow under optimism than pessimism, but what is the resource democrats draw their strength from and is it geographically concentrated? Optimism is supported by the philosophical and economic concept of the public good. Philosophically, the public good is rights like the freedom of speech while economically it is resources like a properly funded public school system. The concepts are seldom explicitly taught even among economic schools, but have been well outlined by thinkers like John Ralston Saul. Due to the nature of the parties, blue states have more of it and red states less.
Whether you practice or not, without even knowing it, we are first introduced to the public good via religion. The stories of the Koran, the Bible, and the Torah all strive to codify the public good. When religions overlap to reveal universal truths, that is the philosophical arm of the public good. Gandhi said all religions are true because all religions strive to have a relationship with the public good. If an ancient religious text seems dated and not to be taken literally, that is because what is good is in flux and constantly needs progressive revision and the removal of interests. Adamantly promoting an outdated, unreflected upon version of the public good to support an interest creates pessimism.
The next great codification of the public good (and recognition of its fragility) that we are exposed to is the United States Constitution. The document is set up to prevent erosion or deliberate destruction of the public good by outlining checks and balances to government bodies as well as containing a strong bill of rights. The document can also be officially amended to reflect the public good so it does not become as easily dated as a religious text.
But how does this all relate to the current divide within the country? Times of American growth and prosperity have taken place during periods where a vast majority have optimistically believed other people were inherently good without being hyper conscious of it. Prosperity has also coincided with policy that strengthened the resources of the public good so that they could be drawn upon for optimism.
Economically, the public good is a vast network of resources holding immense hard to quantify wealth so it has become a major target of kleptocracy and looting. The public good is hard to notice and outline so that it becomes hard to defend when it is stolen from such as the privatization of prisons or privatization of essential services like fire departments. We are currently seeing efforts to privatize public schools which may be the public good’s single greatest resource for optimism.
It is important to recognize what should be public and what should be private and to understand the benefits of both because they feed each other and help us find balance. Private for profit institutions can never have the full goals of public institutions and therefore cannot generate the same optimism that drives prosperity. Public resources such as research are integral to business optimism and make it easier for competitive private enterprises to start and grow. Due to externalities, production often has costs not factored into the price of a good. Protections from public institutions like the EPA create and maintain optimism by assuring the public will not foot the bill down the road for the accumulated destructive behavior of a corporation.
The pessimists have always been in this country, but they have never recently been so strong. Previously, pessimism was mainly the product of religion, particularly fire and brimstone versions of Christianity, but atheists and agnostics also have to form a value system and need to see the public good to become optimists. Optimism is harder when you are geographically further away from the resources of the public good which is disproportionately concentrated in cities due to higher population density.
Numerous catalysts for pessimism exist and a very significant driver has been terrorism created by economic unrest in unstable regions that have very weak public institutions and resources. The priest sex abuse scandals have also been very significant in destroying trust in a large institution that, whether you are religious or not, still plays a large role in the public good. McLuhan-esque changes to media have also weakened optimism and challenged the resolve of all our public resources. Social media is more like algorithmic media and nth degree negative stories get promoted to the fore generating pessimism and paranoia. Due to the algorithmic promotion of stories, many people believe crime is increasing while in actuality statistics show it to be decreasing.
Optimism and pessimism profoundly impacts policing. Who is more likely to shoot an unarmed black man pulled over for a simple traffic violation, an officer that believes people are inherently good or an officer that believes people are inherently bad? Proper funding for public institutions like police departments are integral to maintaining the public good which carries optimism. The funding for these institutions has been ravaged by globalism via the inability to raise taxes. The source of funding changes a municipal police department’s place in the public good. Forcing officers to fund themselves from one by one ticketing creates downward spiral of pessimism with consequences of serious social unrest.
Gun rights can be looked at in the context of the inherently good or bad construct. Citizens successfully move about coastal cities with optimism not carrying guns by holding the belief other people are inherently good while many rural dwellers (to pick a category name) do not believe they can visit the city without a gun. They believe people are inherently bad, or work on a sliding scale where some easy to recognize people are inherently bad. To hold an other saved, they have to be vetted personally.
Coastal cities benefit economically from an upward spiral of optimism generated by creativity that results from pursuing diversity and inclusion. This is all made possible by believing people are inherently good. Strong optimism correlated to key features of the public good helps coastal cities to easily weather storms that directly effect their locals such as terror attacks in New York or Boston. Distant pessimist locals are disproportionately shook despite their distant location.
The current GOP, believing people are inherently bad, is a dead end and cannot create optimism once in power. The economic arm of public good holds immense wealth and instead of keeping size in check, while recognizing its importance, ideology has taken hold with a goal of destroying any optimism supporting public good not tied down. Private business growth within GOP ideology comes from the looting of the public good. Public institutions that should remain public are privatized and protections are removed which create externalities that will have to be paid for later by the public. Current GOP policy does not create original prosperity, but rather only a transfer from the public good to private hands.
This inherently good versus bad, optimism versus pessimism construct lies beneath the rhetoric and hopefully is helpful to put a finger on exactly how we differ within this divided country. The relation of the public good to optimism and its associated prosperity hopefully can constructively guide policy to narrowing the divide. Rural areas need the resources of the public good that urban areas have been able to draw from if they are to conquer their pessimism. Believing people are inherently good is a hard road to walk and there will be bruising if not scars, but it is the true American way and path to sustained prosperity.