After the Election, Fear Is Our Only Chance at Unity – NYTimes.com
Unlike a foreign attack, a problem that threatens only one side’s sacred values can therefore divide us, rather than unite us. It’s as though a giant asteroid is headed for the Earth. One side sees it coming and screams, but the louder it screams, the more stubbornly the other side covers its ears and averts its eyes. Here are a few of the asteroids hurtling toward us, which half of us can already see with our naked eyes:
• Rising temperatures. The left has been raising the alarm about global warming since the 1990s. It’s a threat to the environment and to poor people around the world — sacred values for liberals — but the right largely denies the scientific consensus, in part because many of the remedies would require limits on industry and intervention into markets (which would violate sacred values for some conservatives). Hurricane Sandy gave us a small taste of what’s likely to happen more frequently.
• Rising entitlements. The right has railed against entitlement spending since the 1960s, and its frustration boiled over in the Tea Party movement. The welfare state is a threat to traditional conservative values of personal responsibility (people have less incentive to plan for their own future) and fiscal solvency. Despite the logical errors in Mitt Romney’s “47 percent” comments, we do face bankruptcy when the baby boomers retire and a shrinking percentage of workers must pay the ever growing expenses of a ballooning class of retirees. Yet the Democrats want to “protect” older Americans, students and almost everyone else from the need to sacrifice.
• Rising inequality. The left has been protesting rising inequality since Ronald Reagan cut taxes on the rich and benefits for the poor, and a great deal of recent scholarship documents the socially, morally and economically damaging effects of separating the haves ever further from the have-nots. Nearly all the gains in productivity in the last 30 years have gone to the wealthiest, but the right justifies the trend and denies its toxicity.
• Rising births to unmarried women. In 1960, 5 percent of American children were born to unmarried women. In 2010, that number was more than 40 percent. Conservatives treat the traditional family as the irreplaceable building block of society and are therefore horrified that unmarried motherhood will soon be the national norm. The left has been ambivalent about the value of marriage (at least, before the push for gay marriage), sometimes viewing it as a patriarchal institution and reluctant to admit that a stable marriage is very good for children.
In other words, America faces many serious threats, but each side sees some and denies others. Morality binds and blinds. The philosopher John Stuart Mill described this problem in 1840, noting that in almost all major ideological controversies, “both sides were in the right in what they affirmed, though wrong in what they denied, and that if either could have been made to take the other’s views in addition to its own, little more would have been needed to make its doctrine correct.”
To see Mill’s diagnosis in action, note that marriage is disappearing primarily among Americans without a four-year college degree. Marriage confers so many benefits on children that it helps them rise into the upper tier of wealth; children who don’t benefit from a stable marriage are more likely to fall. So if you are a liberal who is worried about the inequality asteroid, you might consider teaming up with a conservative group trying to promote marriage.
But then you’d run smack into the problem that women rarely want to marry a man with no job and poor prospects. So if you are a conservative who cares about the unmarried-mother asteroid, you might want to team up with liberal groups working to improve educational equality and to find ways to keep poor young men in school.
When we focus only on the one asteroid that most frightens us, we feel anger at the partisans on the other side. We curse their blindness without recognizing our own. But if we can look up into the sky and see a whole fleet of asteroids heading for us, we lose our tunnel vision and experience a healthy form of panic. We’re in big trouble, and anyone who does that hyperpartisan stuff now should be ashamed — or kicked out of office. The day after Election Day is the day for all of us, and our siblings and cousins, to come together and start building an asteroid deflection system.