Years ago, James Carville explained the presidential race to candidate Bill Clinton by saying simply...
It's the economy, Stupid!
The idea, of course, was to keep the candidate focused on the real issue that voters cared about, ignoring all the other things that would only sidetrack his message. For the record, Carville was right, but that doesn't much matter today.
Although I've heard no one utter these words, today the message is different, and perhaps even more profound.
It's Fear, Stupid!
Let's explore what that really means, and why it provides the answer to almost every situation that confronts the society of the United States today.
Most everyone would agree that American society has never been more polarised, at least not since the Civil War. Almost everything remotely political is viewed as Us vs. Them. Everything is Black and White...and gray has been relegated to the crayon box. The "other party" is always the Bad Guys, and nothing they propose or endorse could possibly be acceptable. Government appointees are judged using litmus tests that immediately qualify or disqualify them regardless of their knowledge, skills, and abilities.
Every discussion is filled with or structured around the pejorative terms that define the landscape...Liberal, Tea Bagger, Racist, and others too numerous to track. If Harry likes it then Mitch must automatically be against it, and vice versa. The House will never even consider, let alone pass, anything that the Senate supports, and the Senate reciprocates in turn. The Senate rules allow the minority to block almost all legislation, even things that everyone knows will pass easily. The House refuses to consider legislation that won't have total TOP support, even if it would pass with by-partisan support. Compromise is the ultimate dirty word, consigned to the back page of the dictionary where the "N word" resides.
It is easy to point fingers and blame "the others"...and both sides can do rightly do so. There's enough blame to tar everyone in government, and it is liberally (no pun intended) brushed on every day.
Hiding beneath all this noise is one singular causal element: Fear!
No, it's not really that people fear the other side will "win," although that is certainly part of the equation.
The fundamental problem is simply fear of change. It's really that simple.
Like it or not we live, and for that matter have always lived, in a world that is constantly evolving. Change happens every day, and always has. On most days the change is subtle and incremental. When computers supplanted typewriters it didn't happen in a single day, and, in truth, the typewriter industry could see it coming for a long tim. Once we got past primitive dot matrix printers the fonts were on the paper for all to see. Manufacturers and their employees saw it coming, and while the change was dramatic, it wasn't earth-shaking.
Now, however, things are changing at a much more rapid pace, and at least some of the changes are far more fundamental. These new challenges, which may or may not really be new, are forcing people to confront their most closely held beliefs, and that has always created fear.
Society has always struggled with equality. From the earliest recorded history of mankind there have been haves and have-nots. Slavery was endemic, and as our own Civil War demonstrates, setting aside that old idea is painful. One of the underlying causes of the Civil War was simply that "the South" feared they would lose their traditional way of life if slavery were abolished. Economically they feared their business model would fail, while socially they feared that the Negro would somehow become an equal human being...a true challenge to their belief system. In anger and fear, they struck back, hoping to preserve what they were comfortable doing.
That whole battle was re-fought in the 60's when true civil rights became the battlefield. Once again, change threatened a way of life. People feared that the things they knew would change, and they responded with axe handles, fire hoses, and dogs.
Just as in those social upheavals, people today feel threatened, and they're striking back...floundering about while hoping that they can forestay changes that are simply going to happen even if they don't like it.
The Constitution separates Church and State, so as schools become more secular, those with deep religious convictions opt for home schooling, hoping to protect their children from knowledge that conflicts with their beliefs. The fundamentalist Christians, who hold beliefs tied directly to their understanding of the Bible, fight against science that proves otherwise. Why? Fear!
Religious beliefs often form the entire basis for self, and when they are challenged, a person is left to examine the most basic foundation of their life. Even asking the questions is nearly impossible, and allowing those things to change nearly unthinkable. They are left with a single conclusion:
If the Bible isn't accurate, or contains flaws and inaccuracies, then how can I believe anything? If I can't believe that any more, what do I do?
Those are not easy questions for anyone, but for an adult who has been taught the dogma for generations, it's even harder. As the pressure increases, so does their fear...and hence their resistance.
Just as the South felt economically threatened by the end of slavery, global issues and climate changes also threaten American society, and it's easy to see the fear overflow. Corporations with vested interests in the tradition of fossil fuels lash out to preserve their livelihood as the environmentalists fight for tighter regulation and greater human acceptance of stewardship of the planet. On a personal level people continue to purchase low mileage cars and trucks, at least partly because the industry continues to press marketing campaigns that sell sexy and speed as vital elements in something that is truly only a functional device. If you visit an automobile you'll discover, if you didn't already know, that cars don't have sex...but we're still buried in ads telling us they do.
In country after country the issue of immigration arises, as does the xenophobic response. Why? Fear! "Those people" are different from us, and, in truth, the response is actually "I'm afraid of them." What is to fear? The list is long...from taking the jobs, to having a different religion, to different cultural norms and traditions, to...everything else about them. Stereotypes are easy, and understand it's never about hate...it's about Fear.
Although the United States is only peripherally involved, the conflicts in the Middle East...both the traditional brawl between the Muslims and the Jews AND the more recent clashes between the various factions within Islam...are also based solely upon fear.
"Those people believe differently than I do...and I somehow feel threatened."
The truth is that people perceive that those "others" might be right, and that would require both changing my own beliefs AND acknowledging they were correct. Within religion those two elements are almost impossible, and within the Islamic world, considered apostasy punishable by death. No wonder people fear.
Sadly, I can't offer any real solutions to this epidemic of fear. It is a disease without a cure, and those who fear vaccinations would refuse any prophylactic care in any case. That said, we, as a society, will only move forward when we being by acknowledging the fears that others have, and then help them to confront the reality of changing times. THAT, unfortunately, requires that we put aside our own fears and reach out to others who challenge our own beliefs. In our eyes they may be "wrong" but that doesn't change the fact that they are, like us, fellow human beings.