SOMEWHERE BEAUTIFUL BETWEEN NEW YORK AND SEATTLE — America, we need to talk. And not on Facebook. I mean, really talk.
I’ll have many thoughts to share from this summer’s cross-country road trip (#RoadTrip201^), but one is screaming at me so loud I have to spit it out immediately. While seemingly everyone loves ranting about our presidential election online, nobody wants to talk about it in person. Nobody. It’s a dichotomy I’ve never seen before, and it’s bad for democracy. It’s also a little frightening.
I found this everywhere from Baker City, Oregon (near the Bundy Brothers standoff) to Wilmington, Ohio (poster child for recession-devastated small town America). Twitter wars: yes. Facebook rants: There’s never enough. But ask a waiter why he likes Trump and he’ll race off to refill your water glass. Ask a city official which way their swing state might turn, and he says he’d just be guessing. Nobody in his town says a peep, in person, about presidential politics.
It’s awful, really. It’s like we’ve started sleeping in different beds, and only communicate via email.
It strikes me that we need a national marriage counselor.
First, let me share this. It is such a privilege and an honor to drive across this beautiful country — just as it is a privilege and an honor to live here. I am well aware that I have won life’s lottery that I have the ability to drive coast-to-coast repeatedly, a treat many people dream to do even once. While Rusty (and Lucky) and I have plenty of fun, I take these trips very seriously. Many Americans believe, rightly, that journalists have a terrible habit of only caring about the coasts. They hide in New York, or Washington, or Los Angeles, and make their pronouncements about America as if they know her. They don’t.
Of particular irritation to me are the stories I read about crazy Trump supporters where journalists don’t bother to talk to a single Trump supporter. But you could say that for every candidate. Pundits (and even campaigns) keep expressing shock at the level of anger Americans feel out here between the coasts. That just means they haven’t spent enough time here.
I make it my point to do that, so here’s what I know. Speaking from my area of expertise: Americans feel ripped off. Because they have been ripped off. As I’ve chronicled in The Restless Project, the math is simple: Today, two people with decent jobs can’t really provide a secure future for their families in most cities. Sure, we have big TVs, but we have no idea how we’ll pay for the kids’ college or our own old age. We’re not even sure about the mortgage — and if we’re young, we’ve found there simply are no starter homes for us to buy and start a family. America doesn’t work right now. It’s having a bad decade. Or two.
People aren’t quite sure who to blame for this. Wall Street! The Bushes! The Clintons! Welfare moms! Mexicans! Religion! Gays!
And so, winning elections, increasingly, comes down to assembling the best list of scapegoats. Scapegoats have always been popular, but social media seems to be the killer app for scapegoating. Why? The “conversation” is perfectly one way, a digital echo chamber like no other. You can hurl insults and nonsense and never have to face the people you accuse. Oh, sure, someone might call you out on a “fact,” but you can simply rant back. A wise person said to me recently that he’d never seen a single opinion changed during a Facebook argument, and I had to agree.
See, the problem with all these oversimplifications is that they don’t stand up to human contact. It’s easy to hate gay people, or Russians, or people who like the band Nickelback. Until you meet one who is kind and nice and funny and smart. And then you start to question whether that person really has anything to do with your farm failing or your retirement funds dwindling.
I know plenty of folks who will happily blame welfare moms for their economic woes, but also give the shirt off their back to the single mother they know down the street. Americans aren’t the bad, stupid, racist, sexist ass&&les we are made out to be. Technology is just bringing out the worst in us, and giving a megaphone to the edge cases while everybody else says, “I don’t want to talk about it.”
And so, I’m begging you, fellow Americans. Talk. Sit in cafes. Sit in bars. Encounter people you don’t encounter on your Facebook feeds. Say how you feel. Listen to how they feel. Ask someone why they like Trump. Let someone explain why they like Clinton. Fight the urge to argue. Hear. Learn.
How important is discussion in cafes and bars? In research I’ve been doing for my pet project on the history of Irish pubs and bars in general, I’ve learned that the rise of cafe culture contributed to the French Revolution, because it set the stage for discussion of ideas. In Ireland, pubs were also a “classless” place, meaning landowners and workers would mingle there, even if they never saw each other elsewhere. When people meet, and talk, ideas emerge. Big ideas, like freedom and democracy.
Mingling is good. Isolation is bad. Please, step away from the keyboards and talk to your fellow man and woman. Across the country, we’re not doing that right now. And that is the biggest threat to our future.
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