It’s been two weeks since the Parkland, Florida, shooting, when a 19-year-old opened fire at Stoneman Douglas High School and killed seventeen people, including both students and teachers.
While this was one of the deadliest school shootings in history, unfortunately, we’ve had deadlier. Most recently, the Las Vegas shooting on October 1 killed 58 and injured more than 850. Five months later, and we still don’t have all the answers as to how or why it happened. Yet, media coverage of the incident waned quickly, and few seem to really care.
Not so with Parkland. The media remain hyper-focused on the latest tragedy, despite the fact that, in the last two weeks, the Democrats released their rebuttal to the GOP memo, thirteen Russians were indicted by Robert Mueller, Oxfam was ousted for scandal, the ACLU is suing Ohio, Planned Parenthood is suing Trump, Jared Kushner’s security clearance was downgraded and Reverend Billy Graham died. While the media have touched on each of these topics, the keystone of our current coverage has been the shooting.
Perhaps it is because of the near-daily developments uncovered that highlight the inexcusable ineffectiveness of the FBI and the incompetence of the Broward Sheriff Department. Perhaps it is because it involves teenagers – adolescents old enough to to have a voice but young enough to pull on your heart strings. Perhaps Americans have finally had enough, and they’re willing to push the conversation of gun control further than they had previously.
I believe it’s all of those things – and a bit more. No doubt each of these factors has stoked the flames of controversy, but the cause of the fire seems to be more than just the shooting itself: it is likely that all the tension, tribalism and tempestuousness before Valentine’s Day helped ignite the blazes of discord.
In the past two weeks, we have seen the ugliest parts of American partisanship. One side is blamed for being complicit in mass murder, and the other is accused of rejoicing in it for political gain. These nefarious claims go much more deeply than our differences over guns: they reveal how both sides really feel about each other. Many on the Left see conservatives as heartless hillbillies. Many on the Right see progressives as media-powered manipulators. The relentlessly emotional debate over the Parkland shooting is simply the manifestation of all of our increasingly polarized partisanship.
Upon observation, it may seem like our disagreements today are more complicated than they used to be. Our parents certainly were not debating over gender pronouns or when a human life begins. But, really, it’s not those superficial differences that divide us now – it’s the fundamental ones. The problem is not that the debates between the Right and the Left are more complex than they used to be, it’s that they’re much simpler.
At one point, I think (though, who can be sure?), we Americans were at least held together by a few common values and a shared ultimate vision for America: one where all men and women were viewed as equal in worth and free to pursue whatever destiny our Creator had created us to pursue. There have always been disagreements along ideological lines on what that equality, freedom and pursuit looks like, but, within those differences, we were able to engage in civil, ideas-centered debates that helped move us closer to an America that was better, safer and more successful for each of us.
Martin Luther King, Jr., for example, in advancing the cause of liberty and justice for all, even in the midst of the intense racism of the Civil Rights Era, represented reason, rationality and respect. His legacy will endure as long as America exists, not because of hot takes and ad hominem, but because of his ability to make people think, rather than just make them angry. We seem to no longer have the patience for such thoughtful discourse.
There are many possible factors at play in our growing divide and our seeming inability to have productive conversation. Social media, the desire to go viral, the need for clicks and the thirst for instant gratification surely have not encouraged reason nor decorum. But, to me, our issues are much less trite than the consequences of technology. They are fundamental.
If we think of America as a tree, its seed is inherent human worth – what the founders believed to be our Creator-imbued, equal value as people. The roots of the tree, grown from the seed of inherent worth, are the God-given rights guaranteed to us. Those rights are best summarized in the Declaration of Independence: life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness (property).
The manifestations of our God-given rights are listed in the Constitution, which is the trunk of the tree. These include such rights as freedom of speech, freedom of religious expression, the right to bear arms and protection against unreasonable searches and seizures, for example.
The application of our God-given, constitutionally guaranteed rights, the policies we enact, are the branches of the tree. These grow in multiple directions, and new ones are growing all the time. Some are even cut off completely, while others are grafted in.
And here, admittedly, is where the analogy breaks down a bit: the foliage represents our culture and our everyday choices, because both are ever-changing – more so than our laws. But I don’t believe that our culture is always influenced by policy – very often it’s the other way around.
Nevertheless, in general, this is how the American tree stands: the seed of human worth, the roots of God-given rights, the trunk of the manifestation of those rights, the branches of the application of our rights (policy) and the foliage of our shifting culture.
As with any tree, leaves changing, falling and renewing is normal and healthy. Even branches trimmed, reshaped and removed entirely is part of natural pruning. It is the chopping away at the base, the uprooting of the tree and the desire to plant a new, different seed that does damage and threatens its existence.
The Right, in general, want to preserve the base of the tree. The Left, in general, are tired of changing leaves and creating new branches, so they would like to plant a new tree entirely.
Pew conducted a study last year citing our growing political divide. Both sides of the aisle have gone further in their respective ideological directions, especially Democrats:
Consequently, the gap between us is larger:
Notice how dramatically our divide has grown in the last ten years compared to 1994-2004. The gap grew by just two points in that decade, whereas from only 2011-2017, the gap grew by ten points. In the first graph, you’ll see the areas, in particular in which we are most divided: regulations, the poor and how to help them, racial discrimination, immigration and diplomacy.
Notice also our widest gaps – which pertain to the poor and what they receive from the government (the third graph) and black people who are unable to get ahead (the sixth graph) – and how much Democrats’ perception of these two concepts have shifted compared to Republicans. Adding this fact to the dramatic increase in favorability of immigrants Democrats have experienced (the seventh graph) in twenty years, it is logical to deduce that this is because Democrats feel much more – maybe more than ever – that this country is doing an inadequate job of helping those on the margins of society.
The numbers show that much of this Democratic shift toward the Left happened during Barack Obama’s presidency. Take a look at this graph:
64% of Democrats polled think that black people are repressed by racial discrimination, as opposed to only 28% in 2010. So, while a black man served as President, the perception of black oppression grew by more than 30 percentage points.
I could dedicate an entire article on that fact alone, but, for now, I want to explore the deeper reality to which I believe it and its conjoining statistics point: conservatives and progressives have vastly different ideas of what this country offers people, and, essentially, what this country is.
There is a large percentage of Americans who believe our country has purposely stacked the odds against particular groups of people. Because of that, they are skeptical not just of our culture and laws, but of the identity of the country itself. Obama represented this skepticism throughout his presidency, turning away from the patriotism with which most of us were familiar, to an apologetic approach to leadership both at home and abroad.
Now, we have an unapologetically patriotic president who promises to restore America’s pride and greatness. These are the very characteristics so many missed during Obama’s presidency, but they’re also the things so many grew to resent. That is why “the resistance” exists: Obama’s own posture toward America drastically shifted the way progressives– the majority of Americans – feel about the country in which they live. In my view, he, intentionally or not, took progressives from hoping to change the foliage and branches, to wanting to chop down the tree entirely.
That is why dialogue is so difficult today. Progressives want a new America. They hoped that Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders would pick up where Obama left off, leading them down the blissful road of socialism. President Trump, with his lack of political correctness and emphasis on American exceptionalism, has been a rude awakening.
Parkland is the most recent, and the most violent, representation of this tension between two vastly different ideals. The argument we’re having isn’t really about guns, it’s about the people who each side feels are ruining their idea of what America should be.
Conservatives see every attempt to regulate guns as another big-government attempt to control their lives, hamper their patriotism and destroy the country. That’s because the right to bear arms, as is guaranteed in the Second Amendment, is a manifestation of our God-given rights of life and the liberty to protect it how we see fit. Thus to diminish the Second Amendment is a severe chop (if not, to many, the deadly blow) to the base of the tree.
Progressives despise these backwoods bumpkins who, in their view, care nothing for children and want only to protect their weapons of mass destruction.
Both of these views are grounded in our fundamental disagreement of what this country is. The Right, as a whole, still believes in personal responsibility and perpetuating the liberty that allows human beings to flourish without government overreach. The Left, as a whole, believes that, more than ever, significant government involvement is necessary for human flourishing.
The problem with the latter, though, is that it is not what our founders intended, and it is not what is outlined in the constitution. Essentially, that’s not what America is. Progressives are seeking to chop away at the base of our proverbial tree – to uproot it if they have to – and to plant a new seed sown with their own ideas of equity and success.
Conservatives’ defense of the Second Amendment is to the Left a symbol of the old, outdated America – one they want to replace with their own remodeled version – one that mirrors Canada and Europe in culture, policy and fundamental values. But, how most on the Right see it: we fled England because of the very things for which progressives are now fighting, why would we go back?
Today’s polarization means that every issue we discuss will not be about ideas, but about the people that are for or against who we believe America is and should be. That means our debates are not political or intellectual in nature, but moral.
Unfortunately, if my analysis is correct, our discord will continue. Something has to give fundamentally: either those on the Left will have a moment of enlightenment and see that their constant push for government overreach, censorship and over-taxation will set us on a path toward forced mediocrity, or conservatives will succumb to what seems like the inevitable progression of society toward modern day liberalism.
Whatever the result, you can bet Parkland won’t be the last bloody battleground on which we fight.