There's much that's been made about the polarization between Democrats and Republicans, but they do share one unique similarity. The both have growing factions in their party that believe in a dystopian apocalyptic future despite the mountain of evidence that shows the opposite. Why? Because they need the world to be more violent than it is, more dangerous than it is, more unintelligent than it is, in order to justify their particular paradigm shift. Things have to be really bad in order to have a revolution, and so they paint the world as chaotic, backward and spiraling out of control.
What each vision lacks though is humility. They both make the assumption that they understand not only what is going on, but they claim to be able to see into the future and predict what will happen in 10, 15, 20 years. It takes humility to say, "I don't understand what's going on and I don't know what will happen," and it is with this humble gaze that we should turn to look at long term trends in measurable data. Looking at these trends we can see that the world is getting less violent, less racist, less sexist, people are living longer, more babies are surviving pregnancy, birth rates are drastically declining which will lead to a smaller more stabilized world population, any number of harmful diseases have been extinguished, extreme poverty is being reduced, and global inequality is falling.
People who argue against making our progress more widely known believe that talking about our success will somehow make us stop progressing. They believe that if people think things are improving they will stop trying to fix what is broken, and so they deliberately go out of their way to paint the world as worse than it is in order to try and achieve some future goal they have in mind. Typically the intentions are good. They desire a less racist, less sexist world, but in the process eviscerate any sign of progress because they see a connection between the direness of their social project and the amount of attention and resources people will spend on it.
After Trump's speech last night, these two approaches have now merged. They both have differing future visions of the world, but they are using the same technique in order to try and achieve them. This approach, of intentionally leading people to believe that the world is worse off than it actually is, has been a failure. It has not inspired people. It has not created a movement of solidarity that unites us against common problems, rather its singular focus on what's wrong has made people feel disaffected, helpless and out of control, the perfect environment for an authoritarian like Trump to step in and reassure people that he's the man that's going to fix everything.
The left and the right's versions of the apocalypse have merged into one vision with two opposing aims. The reaction to this should not be to pander to one or the other, or to choose sides. It should be to more accurately, more effectively depict the reality of the situation, to puncture the illusion that each side is presenting with a stronger, more verifiable understanding of how things really are.
It used to be common knowledge that the earth was the center of the universe. It took someone who decided to measure the world and see if this belief was true in order for us to come to a more accurate understanding of our physical place in reality. It is no different with trying to understand the interrelations of 319 million Americans. We have common sense beliefs about the reality of America that are based on our personal experience, but these beliefs are often partial and inaccurate when applied to the country as a whole. Our own experiences are important, but they are poor guides to trying to understand the larger social dynamics that we find ourselves.
In general Americans are positive about their own financial well being but are disillusioned about the larger economy. They are generally happy with Obama and his performance as a president but believe the country is headed in the wrong direction. They think national government is hopelessly corrupt but tend to like their local politician. This irrationality is well documented. We are local optimists and global pessimists, and this bias may be more about our cognitive capacity, than any political beliefs we hold. Similar trends can be found in Norway, Japan, Poland, Russia, Denmark, Urugay, the Phillipines, Nigeria, etc. It is not so much an American problem, as a human reasoning problem. We are just not that good at conceptualizing on a global or national level.
This is all the more reason to question our basic assumptions as to how we see America and its future. Assumptions come fast and easy. They take little effort and seem to make sense, but when we string them out and compare them to one another, we are left with an incomprehensible narrative, one that believes many contradictory things. Empirical data is hard work. It does not come easy. It comes slow, and the claims it makes are typically smaller and less satisfying than we want them to be. They can also be confounding to our unexamined assumptions, which can be unsettling, even when the news is good.
My desire here is not to paint a better picture of reality than what actually exists. It is to most accurately describe the one we have. It is to have humility about what we know and what we can actually see going forward, and to embrace a vision of the world that is not steeped in left or right, or democrat or republican, but what is discernibly true. Data doesn't reduce the world to itself. It is a guide to the much richer complexity of human meaning. It is not everything. It is not the complete truth. It is simply a small flicker of light that helps us see the edges of the world around us, and it is a world I believe we should be proud of, despite all of its problems, because it is pride in one's work, not fear and despair, that will give us the strength to continue our progress well into the future.