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Bipolar America

By       Message Bob Burnett     Permalink
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Recently, a friend of mine became a US citizen. Now she wonders what she let herself in for: "I don't understand US politics. Are Republicans crazy? What candidates like Trump are saying makes no sense." I said, "Welcome to bipolar America. Democrats and Republicans have radically different visions of the US."

Professor Robert Reich wrote an insightful essay, "The lost Art of Democratic Narrative," observing "there are four essential American stories:" two about hope and two about fear. In the 2016-campaign cycle, Republicans have seized hold of the myths about fear: "the mob at the gates" and "rot at the top."

In the "mob at the gates" narrative, "the United States is a beacon light of virtue in a world of darkness, uniquely blessed but continuously endangered by foreign menaces." This is a fearful perspective, one that suggests that if Americans are not continuously vigilant we will be overwhelmed by the forces of evil.

In contrast there is a positive narrative, "the benevolent community," where "neighbors and friends who roll up their sleeves and pitch in for the common good." There are many American examples of this: the New England town meeting, community barn or school construction, volunteer fire departments, and direct-action campaigns managed by the consensus process. It's a hopeful perspective, one that suggests that if Americans work together we can accomplish anything.

Last weekend, I was reminded of these contrasting narratives when I saw "The Martian," a film in the benevolent community tradition: Americans roll up their sleeves to save an astronaut marooned on Mars. One of the previews was for a horror movie where high-school students go on vacation and are attacked by zombies, "the mob at the gates."

Feeding on the "mob at the gates" narrative, Republicans have made immigration a huge issue. Donald Trump promises to deport all undocumented immigrants and "build a wall" to keep illegals out." Regarding Syrian refugees potentially coming to the US, Trump warned, "This could be one of the great military coups of all time if they send them to our country -- young, strong people and they turn out to be ISIS." Trump and the other candidates have coupled their anti-immigration stances with Islamophobia (and a general disregard for people of color). And, of course, support for gun ownership; Republicans need their guns for protection from the mob at the gates (and zombies).

In contrast, Democratic candidates Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders support the pathway to citizenship model of immigration reform. Clinton supports broad aid for the Syrian refugees and admitting some to the US. This stance is consistent with the "benevolent community" narrative. (Both candidates deplore Islamophobia and are supportive of the aspirations of people of color; both are for common-sense gun control.)

By the way, the latest CBS News/New York Times poll indicates that 68 percent of Americans believe illegal immigrants should be allowed to stay in the US.

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We shouldn't be surprised that the Republicans and Democrats subscribe to different narratives because there is a growing body of research that suggests member of the two parties are psychologically distinct: "political conservatives have a 'negativity bias,' meaning that they are physiologically more attuned to negative (threatening, disgusting) stimuli in their environments" and "conservatism is positively associated with heightened [needs] for order, structure, closure, certainty, consistency, simplicity, and familiarity." In other words, Republicans are driven by fear.

Robert Reich's other negative political narrative is "rot at the top:" "It's a tale of corruption, decadence, and irresponsibility in high places--of conspiracy against the common citizen." In the 2015 Republican presidential campaign, outside candidates (Ben Carson, Carly Fiorina, and Donald Trump) have seized on this to castigate their opponents (Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio, Rand Paul, etc.) as part of the traitorous Washington elite. These outsider candidates are running not only against the Obama administration but also against Washington politicians, in general (and some would say, against government in general). Trump's theme is "making America great again." He's said, "Our country is in serious trouble. We don't have victories anymore." He leads the Republican candidates in moaning about the US losing to countries like China, Mexico, and Japan.

Not surprisingly, Trump has his facts wrong. The latest Global Competitiveness Report says the US has the number 3 world economy behind Switzerland and Singapore. Japan is 6, China is 28, and Mexico is 57. (The latest Time magazine ranking of "best" nations shows Germany number one and the US number two.)

In contrast with Republicans, Democrats have a positive political narrative, "the triumphant individual." "The little guy who works hard, takes risks, believes in himself, and eventually gains wealth, fame, and honor." Leveling the playing field is one of the classic Democratic themes, making it possible for an individual of modest means (like Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, And Elizabeth Warren) to become successful. It's why Dems are concerned about income inequality.

No, Americans are not crazy. But we have radically different visions of our country. Democrats are hopeful; Republicans are fearful. Democrats see the US as a beacon of hope in a difficult world; Republicans think we suck. Welcome to bipolar America.

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Bob Burnett is a Berkeley writer. In a previous life he was one of the executive founders of Cisco Systems.

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