The Invisibles: American Polarization and the Reality Gap
“The fracturing of our political reality is a wound a long time in the making.”
When Donald Trump first began catching momentum in the summer of 2015, friends and colleagues alike asked me whether I’d ever actually met anyone who supported him. “I don’t see Trump signs,” one said, shaking his head like it was all some fantasy. “I don’t see anything on Facebook. I have a hard time believing they even exist.”
Honestly, I had felt the same way. At that point, in my real life and on social media, I hadn’t yet come across any Trump supporters other than members of my family back home in Indiana. This was before Trump signs and flags populated the landscape, before the “Make America Great Again” hats were being worn all around the country. In the midst of all the progressive articles and quotes my friends posted, never had I noticed anyone taking umbrage with the emerging portrait being painted of Trump, never had I seen so much as a fight erupt over whether or not Trump was a racist. Everyone, it seemed, was in perfect agreement over the repulsiveness of the Republican frontrunner.
Senator Tim Scott’s Republican forum event with Donald Trump in September was my first opportunity to really meet the 2016 Republican base up close and personal and I found the right felt the exact same way about the left: They couldn’t believe they were real.
“You’re writing a book?” a GOP county official asked after listening in on the conversation I’d had with my neighbor. “What’s it about?”
“The election,” I told him, trying to be as brief as possible.
“What about it?”
“I don’t know,” I admitted. “How this whole thing happened. How we got to this point in the country. How we got so divided?”
The GOP official, and most of the surrounding crowd, had a lot of opinions on just how we’d gotten to this point. Most popular among them was that Barack Obama had overstepped his authority as president and was leading the country to ruin.
“Liberals aren’t blameless,” another man butted in.
“No,” the man next to me agreed. “They aren’t blameless.”
The conversation happened around me, at me, as I struggled to take notes on my phone. There were so many opinions on how Obama and his liberal supporters had not only ruined the country but had salted the earth and ensured continued political division with their lies and socialist designs.
“Truth is,” my neighbor said, “there aren’t many of them.”
“Liberals?” I asked.
“No, sir. There’s very, very, very few. Probably seventy percent of this country is conservative. Twenty is independent, but they lean right.”
Making sure I understood, I asked him, “You think ten percent of the country is liberal?”
“If that,” he said. “I hardly know any liberals, myself.”
The fracturing of our political reality is a wound a long time in the making. Some would argue it’s been there since the drafting of the Constitution, and even if that can’t be agreed upon it’s obvious that the schism of the Civil War and the long-held divisions resulting from Reconstruction have created a rift Americans still suffer from today. But the Modern Political Divide, the confusing existence that torments not only our governmental dealings but the daily lives of our citizens, has its roots firmly in the 1990s and the era of the Clintons.
Following the dissolution of the Fairness Doctrine in 1987, the deregulation of media ownership provisions allowed the proliferation of right-wing news as we know it today. This allowed outlets like Rush Limbaugh and FOX News to present a completely biased opinion to an unsuspecting public more than ready to accept news that confirmed their beliefs. These developments poisoned political discourse and mired the country in partisan squabbles, ailments that critics argued would doom the republic, but even the most concerned and outspoken voices would have had a hard time understanding the effect the internet and social media would have on our process.
It’s necessary to look back at the nexus of this, the point where these influences intersected: the 1994 midterms, when Republicans steamrolled Democrats and seized Congress for the first time in decades. This sweep has much to do with Limbaugh and the rise of right-wing media, but none of it would have been possible without the efforts of Newt Gingrich and his much-ballyhooed Contract With America, a document released during the midterms that laid out a conservative agenda Republicans would undertake if given control of government.
The Contract With America paid off wildly, in part because Gingrich made a bet that, with spreading mass media, local and regional elections could be marketed as national in scope, a gambit that has been shown to be true time and again. In the era of twenty-four-hour news and in the midst of a gridlocked Congress it seems shocking, but there was a time when senators and congressmen were treated more as representatives of states as opposed to cogs in the national political machine. Gingrich’s play to make the ’94 midterms a referendum on Bill Clinton and the direction of the country forever shifted the focus from local representation to a battle over whether a party and its shared vision would be enacted in the chambers of power.
Over the years this shift has only intensified, and that’s in no small part because the internet now makes it possible to receive constant and comprehensive reports of how our representatives are voting and whether they toe the party line. Whereas in the past we might have concerned ourselves primarily with our own representatives, we now scan the blogs and reports like someone might have read box scores for a baseball game in the 1960s. And, in its own way, that has made politics like a sporting event in which we, the fans, are either winning or losing and every move, every decision, every word is dissected and criticized the way someone might armchair quarterback a Monday Night Football game around the Tuesday morning water cooler.
The result was the passion plays that were the shutdowns of the federal government in 1995 and 1996 and the subsequent impeachment of Bill Clinton two years later. With Gingrich at the helm, the new Republican Party was now fighting a life-or-death struggle with Democrats, and was more than willing to close the doors of government or take down a president as long as it forwarded their agenda. Constituencies were forgotten as a new countrywide battle took shape.
The casualties, other than the progression of the United States’ laws and policies, have been felt primarily on the home front. I cannot put a number on the amount of people who’ve told me over the years how they’ve watched their loved ones, their mothers and fathers, sisters and brothers, consumed by the right-wing media machine. It was a long, long process that began with FOX News’s founding and resulted in unbelievable changes in behavior and discourse. With every family there are new anecdotes about uncomfortable confrontations, hurt feelings, tears shed as parents and siblings rage against anyone who dares question the validity of the right-wing lie.
In my life, I first noticed the reality-gap in the lead-up to the invasion of Iraq in 2003. Despite the Bush administration’s consistent misleading of the public, I was convinced to my core that the war was not only unnecessary but built on false pretenses. I think one of the first clues that tipped me off was hearing those supporting the war, even those who were paid to talk about the situation on the news, routinely confusing Iraq with Al Qaeda, a bizarre mistake as the two could not have been more different. The confusion continued and soon I heard the conservatives in my life blaming Saddam Hussein and the Iraqi people for the attacks of September 11th, a narrative the Bush administration never officially endorsed but certainly used to their advantage.
Many in my family supported that war. Most of them would also later vote for Trump, and much like when I attempted to dissuade them from that choice, when I tried to talk to them about the dangers of invading a sovereign country that hadn’t attacked us, the vitriol I received in return was uncharacteristically nasty. I’ll never forget, that Fourth of July before the invasion, hearing a family member at a cookout tell me, with a red, white, and blue paper plate in hand, that the president should just “drop a nuclear bomb on the whole Middle East” and “turn it into a glass parking lot.”
I asked him about the women and children. About the innocent lives he was more than willing to snuff out without a second thought.
He shrugged. “Kill ’em all.”
The fallout from September 11th and the Iraq War was brutal and led to one of the darker periods in American history. Pissed off and frightened, the Republican faithful, a group that had long touted the virtues of smaller government while worshiping at the altar of Ronald Reagan, the biggest big government president, were more than willing to cede to the federal government any authority it wanted, whether it was trampling on civil liberties or fighting an unjust war, and anyone who disagreed was swiftly punished. For those years I was called a turncoat by loved ones, told that I was un-American, asked by a family member if I knew I was a traitor and that traitors “get what’s coming to them.”
To look back on that stretch of time now it’s odd to realize, in measure, that at least then we were still talking to one another. Even if it meant fights at the dinner table, confrontations that led to long familial silences and irreparable personal damage, we were still forced to inhabit one space where ideas and opinions commingled. We still knew each other existed back then and political philosophies that might have seemed unthinkable were attached to a familiar face. It didn’t seem, back then, that things could get much worse. Years later, we wouldn’t believe how wrong we were.
Jared Yates Sexton is a writer and journalist whose work has appeared in The New York Times, The New Republic, Politico, Salon, and elsewhere. He’s the author of three collections of short fiction and his book The People Are Going To Rise Like The Waters Upon Your Shore: A Story of American Rage will be released by Counterpoint Press in August 2017. Currently he serves as an Associate Professor of Creative Writing at Georgia Southern University.