Americans are divided, according to a widely shared perception, because we disagree about facts. It is not that we have different opinions about subjective issues, but rather that we disagree about objective truth, and that keeps our vast progressive and conservative tribes from reconciling.
As Rani Moli writes for Vox, "Conspiracy theories have real currency – fake news can spread faster than real facts on social media. (If) we don’t agree on a shared reality, more mundane things like political compromise will remain out of reach.”
All of these things are true. They add up to a daunting challenge.
Yet, the focus on facts and misinformation in the context of polarization can lead us to dwell on the wrong things. It leads us to think of polarization as an information correction problem. If only we could make sure that all Americans received the right facts, that would allow us to inhabit the same reality again.
It is the divergent narratives that pit us against each other, right? If only we could eliminate the split screen of reality on which we watch the drama of American democracy, then we could focus on the same picture. And we would have eliminated the idea that half of our leaders or fellow citizens are racists or fascists. Good faith disagreements over taxes and spending could proceed from there.
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Toxic polarization goes deeper than misinformation
The truth, however, is that, as glaring as the problem of misinformation is and as hard as it is to solve, it is not the way to understand the problem of toxic polarization. Polarization is not merely a problem of our failure to recognize the same facts. It is a problem of interpretation, identification and tribalization.
We see things differently, identify ourselves differently and group ourselves together (and in opposition to each other) according to the ways in which we see the world. Misinformation and information silos exacerbate these deeper problems and in turn are exacerbated by them. But our current crisis is deeper.
In the book "Why We’re Polarized," Ezra Klein makes the case that we are mired in an identity-based polarization. It has its roots in our psychologies; conservatives and liberals simply think differently (see Jonathan Haidt’s research on the moral foundations of left and right in "The Righteous Mind").
This is not a bad thing. That people see the world differently is ultimately a good thing. It also is inevitable.
Nonetheless, there is something very bad about the way our differences are manifesting in the politics of today.
“What is changing is not our psychologies,” Klein writes. “What is changing is how closely our psychologies map onto our politics and onto a host of other life choices.”
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Klein notes how knowing little things about a person can tell you an awful lot about their politics. Does your neighbor drive a Prius or a pickup? A visitor from Mars might not think this would be a useful indicator of a person’s views on abortion, immigration or guns. But here on Earth we know that these things are far more correlated than their direct relationships to each other would ever suggest.
Divisions have grown worse since Obama era
During the Barack Obama/Tea Party era (it feels so much longer ago than it was), though propaganda was as real then as it was in prior ages, we did not have the misinformation problem that we possess today. In some cases, we really did not agree on certain factual matters. The split, for example, on whether or not man-made climate change is real was much stronger then than it is today.
And yet, broad agreement on material and political facts still resulted in massive polarization among Americans on the basis of our differences of interpretation. Liberals and conservatives could agree, for instance, that President Obama increased government spending by hundreds of billions of dollars in the early years of his presidency.
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What was polarizing was not the fact, but the interpretation of the fact. Liberals believed that Obama was making necessary investments in the welfare of the American people that demonstrated his patriotism. Many conservatives believed that Obama was engaged in fiscal irresponsibility in a deliberate effort to undermine the American economy.
At a certain point in American political history, as the era of conservative Democrats and liberal Republicans grows distant, practical politics gave way to the politics of identity.
Now I sympathize with people who say politics has always been about identity. In some way, that is true. Groups such as business owners and laborers, women and African Americans have long banded together in shared interests that grow from or lead to a shared identity.
But it was not true a decade or two ago, that simply knowing a person’s affiliation to one of our two major political parties would make many Americans feel they could render judgment on another person’s moral character. This is new phenomenon in modern American politics.
Perhaps this is because previous eras of American life benefited from a stronger shared identification with the concept of being American itself. Before the Civil War, state identities were far more important than national identity. A Virginian was much more a Virginian than she was an American. Perhaps this accounts for some of the division in American life that preceded the Civil War (putting aside the more obvious causes).
In the aftermath of World War II, shared American identity was very strong. Americans from all parts of the country had fought and died beside each other on the battlefields of Okinawa and Normandy, struggling against the evils of fascism in a way that strengthened our shared understanding of what our own country was really supposed to be about.
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That unity was eroded as a younger generation of Americans expressed discontent with the culture and politics of their parents. The movement to finally rectify our longstanding marginalization of African Americans, upon which much of our bipartisan political unity was purchased, also made Americans examine the national conscience. Religiously conservative Americans began to pull in another direction as well.
Those shifts had to happen. But they helped begin a fracturing of the American identity that facts alone cannot repair.
Institutions must restore trust
What is the answer then, if not mere facts? The answer is trust –not in each other’s information (at least not to start with) but in one another’s intentions.
Too many of us have come to believe that only bad, or at least willfully ignorant, people could vote Democrat or Republican as the case may be. If we can come to understand how it is that good people see things the way they do, then we can begin to trust each other’s moral intentions in a way that can allow us to live together as neighbors in democracy once again.
If we can do this, we can begin to see ourselves in one another and identify with one another across the divides.
Polarization is not a facts problem, then. It is a trust problem. How we solve that is the subject of another column.
More from John Wood Jr.:
John Wood Jr. is a columnist for USA TODAY Opinion. He is national ambassador for Braver Angels, a former nominee for Congress, former vice chairman of the Republican Party of Los Angeles County, musical artist, and a noted writer and speaker on subjects including racial and political reconciliation. Follow him on Twitter: @JohnRWoodJr
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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Americans don't trust each other. Are politics or facts to blame?