A Respite From Election-Day Tribalism

Amid a nationwide orgy of partisanship, a short, eclectic reading list to help red, blue, and purple Americans keep things in perspective.

Election days are when the partisan impulse in American life peaks. The map of the United States is divvied up between competing factions. Many are rooting for Team Red or Team Blue to win. It's best to avoid being consumed by the orgy of tribalism. Highly paid political consultants have sold their souls to the Republican and Democratic parties, but the rest of us have nothing to gain by following suit. In fact, doing so makes it harder for us to pursue happiness together. To help keep things in perspective this Election Day, here's a short, eclectic reading list:

1) Think the United States is divided into Red America and Blue America? Think again. As Colin Woodard explains in an article written for the 2010 midterms but still of interest today:

The conventional, state-based regions we talk about—North, South, Midwest, Southwest, West—are inadequate, unhelpful, and ahistorical. The real, historically based regional map of our continent respects neither state nor international boundaries, but it has profoundly influenced our history since the days of Jamestown and Plymouth, and continues to dictate the terms of political debate .... We’re a federation of nations, more akin to the European Union than the Republic of France, and this confounds both collective efforts to find common ground and radical campaigns to force one component nation’s values on the others. Once you recognize the real map, you’ll see its shadow everywhere.

2) In "Five Case Studies on Polarization," a must-read essay by Scott Alexander, one of many highlights is the imagined monologue that he'd deliver to Red America if charged with convincing them to join the fight against global warming:

In the 1950s, brave American scientists shunned by the climate establishment of the day discovered that the Earth was warming as a result of greenhouse gas emissions, leading to potentially devastating natural disasters that could destroy American agriculture and flood American cities. As a result, the country mobilized against the threat. Strong government action by the Bush administration outlawed the worst of these gases, and brilliant entrepreneurs were able to discover and manufacture new cleaner energy sources. As a result of these brave decisions, our emissions stabilized and are currently declining.

Unfortunately, even as we do our part, the authoritarian governments of Russia and China continue to industrialize and militarize rapidly as part of their bid to challenge American supremacy. As a result, Communist China is now by far the world’s largest greenhouse gas producer, with the Russians close behind. Many analysts believe Putin secretly welcomes global warming as a way to gain access to frozen Siberian resources and weaken the more temperate United States at the same time. These countries blow off huge disgusting globs of toxic gas, which effortlessly cross American borders and disrupt the climate of the United States. Although we have asked them to stop several times, they refuse, perhaps egged on by major oil producers like Iran and Venezuela who have the most to gain by keeping the world dependent on the fossil fuels they produce and sell to prop up their dictatorships.

We need to take immediate action. While we cannot rule out the threat of military force, we should start by using our diplomatic muscle to push for firm action at top-level summits like the Kyoto Protocol. Second, we should fight back against the liberals who are trying to hold up this important work, from big government bureaucrats trying to regulate clean energy to celebrities accusing people who believe in global warming of being ‘racist’. Third, we need to continue working with American industries to set an example for the world by decreasing our own emissions in order to protect ourselves and our allies. Finally, we need to punish people and institutions who, instead of cleaning up their own carbon, try to parasitize off the rest of us and expect the federal government to do it for them.

Please join our brave men and women in uniform in pushing for an end to climate change now.

That's one of several moments in the essay when one is struck by the degree to which divisive policy debates turn more on framing and less on substance than you'd ever realized.

3) As surely as the sun rises in the east, televisions pundits will remark today that America is a deeply polarized nation. Any number of articles would undercut that claim. One excellent choice is Graeme Wood's dispatch from the Central African Republic. That is what a polarized nation looks like. We are a deeply lucky nation.

4) On December 10, 1964, Martin Luther King accepted the Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo. His speech, like his life, serves as a reminder to all who understand the long odds of what he achieved and the enormity of his unfinished work: If toiling on as if success were possible brought him farther than anyone would've expected when he began, what right have we to resigned pessimism?

5) In the best column Charles Krauthammer has ever written for The Washington Post, he stepped back—way back—to reflect on the most important function that politics serves. The effect is to put our domestic controversies in perspective.