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How They’re Dividing Us

This is way off topic and too political for me, but it’s something I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about in recent years and since it’s Friday maybe most of you will be relaxed enough that it won’t make heads explode….Okay, probably not, but I’ll give it a go anyhow. 

Despite common differences and shared values Americans are becoming more politically polarized. And it seems to be happening in large part because our tribal leaders are intentionally dividing us for their own political gains. I find this deeply disturbing and it’s something that is damaging our country as it results in a government that cannot legislate in the best interests of its citizens. So I wanted to write a few thoughts about what’s happening and why.

My general theory of this political polarization is a bit like my theory of an inter-temporal conundrum in finance. Basically, we have short term needs that are best fixed using mostly longer-term views, but we have a  political system and a news media that feeds on our short-term biases. This is creating a whip-saw effect where we are consistently dissatisfied by the wrong short-term policies that are enacted and this leads to the seasaw of changing leadership that results in little effective change. The only real winners in this whole saga are the political leaders who have nothing to lose and everything to gain.

Let’s look at a specific example to see how they’re taking advantage of our political biases for their own short-term gain.

In the last few weeks I’ve been thinking about the whole Colin Kaepernick vs Trump vs Nike episode and how it perfectly encapsulates the irrational political bias that is currently polarizing the country. Just think about this:

  1. The NFL is a company that plays a nationalistic song before every game and they make their customers and employees stand for that nationalist ritual. It’s a nice gesture and I greatly appreciate it, but I think we can all agree that it’s kinda weird for a company to make their customers and employees engage in this ritual before they go to work. Imagine being required to sing the national anthem at 9AM every morning at your desk with all your co-workers. That would be very strange. You might think it’s “normal” if you’d become accustomed to it since 1918 when it was first started, but it’s not normal. It’s actually quite unusual.
  2. Even though the ritual is unusual, corporations engage in lots of unusual rituals that they think are important to their brand. So if the employees want to remain employed they should probably conform to those rituals.
  3. If an employee thinks a corporate ritual is weird then it is their right to protest that ritual. It is certainly their right to use the ritual as a time to engage in a peaceful protest that emphasizes an issue they think is important while also recognizing that they are placing their employment in potential jeopardy. Some of the customers and other employees might not like the protest and that is also a right of theirs.
  4. How the corporation and employees deal with these matters is a private issue. And so the rest of us really shouldn’t care too much how the matter is dealt with so long as laws aren’t being broken in the process.

I don’t think any of that is too controversial. I think most of us can agree that singing the national anthem at work is a little unusual. I think most of us would agree that even though it’s an unusual ritual it’s nice to pay your respects to the armed forces. I think most of us can agree that corporations have the right to enforce unusual rituals. I think we can all agree that employees have the right to protest the ritual itself or during that ritual.

But here we are a few years into this matter and people are literally burning their clothes over it. Both sides are overreacting to what is really a non-controversial event. And it’s all because both sides have used the matter to promote a political agenda. And in the end the entire episode is dividing us further with the only real winners being the politicians who have a stake in the outcome. They are tearing us apart over things we agree about more than we disagree about. This. Is. Crazy.

I don’t know how we fix this (though a good start might be more attempts to do objective rather than political analysis), but it is something that needs fixing. And the only people who can fix it are the people who have chosen to pick a tribe and defend that tribe without seeing the shared values that we all have. Make no mistake – no politician will fix this issue. We need to come together as citizens and recognize that it is the politicians who are systematically trying to tear us apart so that they can score cheap political points to promote their agendas.

The first step to solving any problem is first understanding that we have a problem. We are not there yet. But once we all begin to recognize that there is an irrational divide growing across this country we can then begin to have rational conversations that heal the divide.