Shades of gray: Where did America's extreme divide come from

Today everything is seen as either black or white, yes or no, good or bad.

President Trump and Democratic presidential nominee Biden participate in their second debate in Nashville (photo credit: REUTERS)
President Trump and Democratic presidential nominee Biden participate in their second debate in Nashville
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Watching what is happening in America today can most easily be described as a failure to understand that the world is not black and white, but rather various shades of gray. That’s what America used to be and why it was so successful. However, today everything is seen as either black or white, yes or no, good or bad. There is no longer any gray, any maybe or any not so good or not so bad. Moreover, that state of affairs could very well be the catalyst for America’s decline.
America’s strength over the past 244 years has been the ability of the political establishment and the population in general to see the gray, to see the possibility that choices were not always either/or but rather something in between. That ability made it possible for the democratic political experiment to thrive in the US more so than it did at any time in world history. Yet today, it is at risk of unraveling.
There is a surfeit of current examples that illustrate this and are in plain sight for everyone to see.
During the recent presidential campaign, for example, there was an effort to paint the Democratic Party as one committed to socialism that, if it regained power, would destroy the capitalist system. While that may have made for effective political sloganeering, the fact is that probably every thinking candidate knew that this was anything but the truth. The best run countries in the world are a mix of democratic principles liberally sprinkled with socialist benefits. After all, it really is possible for a democracy to make it feasible for everyone to have access to affordable health care and affordable education as well. Israel and a host of European countries are doing this quite well without the fear factor that has been nurtured in America.
On the issue of finding the gray area in the legislative process in America, the installation of Newt Gingrich as the speaker of the US House of Representatives in January 1995 set the stage for politicians to see the opposition as the enemy, with all that this entails. As McKay Coppins wrote in The Atlantic in 2018: “During his two decades in Congress, he [Gingrich] pioneered a style of partisan combat – replete with name-calling, conspiracy theories and strategic obstructionism – that poisoned America’s political culture and plunged Washington into permanent dysfunction. Gingrich’s career can perhaps be best understood as a grand exercise in devolution – an effort to strip American politics of the civilizing traits it had developed over time and return it to its most primal essence.” Given Gingrich’s well-known love of the animal kingdom, it is not surprising that his mantra has been that the strong should rule over the weak regardless of the havoc that may ensue as a result.
Earlier in his career, at a gathering of college Republicans in Atlanta on June 24, 1978, he said, “one of the great problems we have in the Republican Party is that we don’t encourage you to be nasty. We encourage you to be neat, obedient, and loyal and faithful, and all those Boy Scout words, which would be great around the campfire are lousy in politics.” For their party to succeed, Gingrich went on, the next generation of Republicans would have to learn to “raise hell,” to stop being so “nice,” to realize that politics was, above all, a cutthroat “war for power” – and to start acting like it. Therefore, “reaching across the aisle” – once a badge of honor on the part of legislators in order to find the gray between the black and the white and achieve compromise – has now morphed into a cutthroat war for power.
But it was not always this way. What made America functional, what made it possible for the democratic experiment to prosper so that America could be that successful noble experiment in universal freedom was the acknowledgment of the gray and respect for the opinions of others. In biblical times, Hillel and Shammai might have had opposing opinions on a subject but God’s judgment was that they were both correct even though the opinion of only one of them could prevail. However, both opinions were heard.
Former US president Harry Truman said in a message to Congress on August 8, 1950: “Once a government is committed to the principle of silencing the voice of opposition, it has only one way to go, and that is down the path of increasingly repressive measures, until it becomes a source of terror to all its citizens and creates a country where everyone lives in fear.”
The way back will be an uphill climb but America has faced tough challenges many times before and prevailed. Let us hope it is up to the task on this one as well as the price of failure is civil war, an option too frightening to contemplate.
The writer has lived in Israel for 37 year and is CEO of Atid EDI Ltd., a Jerusalem-based business development consultancy. He is chair of the American State Offices Association and former national president of the Association of Americans & Canadians in Israel.