There is a growing unease among Americans that our nation is coming apart at the seams. Some tension can be expected in even the best of societies, but the level of conflict we’re witnessing today is unusually toxic. What are the underlying forces that are creating this split?
Some point to widening regional socio-political differences. Tim Carney, for example, argues that Democrats did so poorly in the 2014 midterm election because a progressive government has been waging a culture war on the South (“Democrats and the Left have tried to outlaw Southerners’ way of life”). The South pushed back by repudiating Democrats in the polling booth, accelerating this regional divide.
A variation of this theme lays the blame on an increasingly partisan media that no longer makes any effort at objectivity in reporting the news. Rick Wilson asserts:
The media’s customers have been burned over and over by bias, and by reporters with an agenda or an axe to grind. They’ve searched for news and information, only to be forced to piece it together on their own when the Official Media decides they’re going to ignore a story.
The result is a two-tier media system, serving two widely divergent audiences with different versions of reality. Over time, the chasm between the two groups grows wider, resulting in wildly differing ways to respond to—or even understand—the issues that trouble us.
Others see a more complex socio-cultural divide at work, locking people into two distinct social classes heading in different directions. This view has been popularized in Charles Murray’s recent book, Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010 (Crown Forum, 2010). These two classes, Murray asserts, are divided not chiefly by race or economic inequities, but more by behavioral factors relating to marriage, industriousness, and religion. The upper class is becoming stronger, richer, more stable, while the lower class is becoming more dysfunctional and poorer.
All of these theories—and a number of variations—provide partial explanations of what is happening in our country. But they fail to uncover what I believe to be a deeper fault line in the American psyche. That fault line lays astride our definition of truth.
In past generations, the overwhelming majority of our citizens believed in an external, objective standard of truth. Truth was “out there” and real, something to be sought, embraced, and defended—however imperfectly—by flawed human beings. This concept of truth shaped society’s approach to morality (“right vs. wrong”), media (“speak truth to power”), law (“the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth”), economics (“handshake and a deal”), education (Harvard’s motto “Veritas” [Truth]), and politics (“I promise . . . so help me God”). Rooted in a historic Judeo-Christian worldview, this understanding of truth was a firm taskmaster, forcing all of us to at least make an effort to constrain our passions according to a common benchmark, and punishing us when we failed to do so.
Today, under the influence of postmodernism, that view of truth has been widely abandoned, replaced with a relativistic model that defines truth as whatever an individual/group/society defines it to be. That redefinition, so simple in its structure, has had enormous repercussions in society. Morality is now defined as whatever the latest polling data says it is. Politics has become a naked grab for power, consequences to the nation be damned. Media is no longer a quest to hold power accountable to truth, but a campaign to promote whatever “social justice” fad is raging today, even to the point of cozying up to the powerful and spinning facts if necessary. Business ethics has become whatever-we-can-get-away-with. Education has turned into a propaganda ministry.
The political, social, and economic issues that are tearing our nation apart today are all merely symptoms of a deeper intellectual divide. A sizable portion of our population still clings to the traditional concept of truth, and try to live their lives by that creed. However, a growing number have jettisoned that concept in favor of an amorphous view that allows each person to choose their own personal truth, independent of any external standard. The two groups can debate policies and issues all day long, but until that philosophical chasm is addressed, there can be no resolution.
History has seen this phenomenon before:
No one calls for justice,
Nor does any plead for truth.
They trust in empty words and speak lies;
They conceive evil and bring forth iniquity. . . .
Justice is turned back,
And righteousness stands afar off;
For truth is fallen in the street,
And equity cannot enter.
So truth fails,
And he who departs from evil makes himself a prey. . . .
(Isaiah 59:4, 14-15)
That environment did not end well then, and it will not end well today. Like the prophets of old, our task is to engage society on a philosophical level, challenging the root disease that is killing the patient. Everything else is just noise.