USA Today, the paper, reflects the current bitter irony of USA, the country. At the top of each editorial page is founder Al Neuharth's vision: "USA Today hopes to serve as a forum for better understanding and unity to help make the USA truly one nation." Ironic, because on the opposite page on February 7th the divisive headline read, "Liberals are the true aggressors in culture wars," written by Jonah Goldberg of the USA Today Board of Contributors. So much for USA Today's noble purpose as it morphs from vision and altruism to incitement and controversy in the name of selling newspapers.
So, too, with our country. Lots of noise but very little conversation. Lots of speaking but very little listening. The constant din of conflict drowning out dialogue. Kind of like the grating sound of the jackhammer repairing the street, the tone of our country -- as reflected in our media -- casts gloom on an otherwise sunny day.
Much of the gloom and doom is wrapped in the "culture war" package, whether from the extreme left, extreme right or the media that gives voice and prominence to both. Is America really engaged in an unrelenting "culture war?" If so, how do we exit the war -- perceived or real -- that battles everyday Americans on the home front?
A few years ago, Morris P. Fiorina published an important book, The Culture War? Myth of a Polarized America. The book, while discussed in many political circles and in college political science classes, went largely unnoticed by the American public. That's too bad, because it was about the American public and today's social and political dynamics.
The book is based on the premise that polling data from 2004 indicates there really is no culture war in America, though the media would have us believe there is one. Take immigration, for example. On that hot-button issue, there was very little difference in attitudes between what are typically considered "red states" and "blue states." In red states, 46% of voters wanted to see a decrease in immigration, while in blue states 45% of voters wanted to see a decrease -- almost exactly the same. On the death penalty, 72% of red state voters were in favor of it, but so were 65% of blue state voters.
Fiorina's book spoke to me because of my personal experience. I work regularly in America's high schools helping teens to build cultures of kindness, caring and respect through an organization called Project Love. We know that the attitudes of teens often mirror those of their parents, and in these school-based workshops, where teens spoke openly about their values, hope and dreams, there were overwhelming similarities -- not differences -- between rich and poor, rural and urban, black and white, Latino and Asian. That's not what one would expect to see based on media reports about America.
To test my hypothesis, that Americans are more alike than we are different, five years ago my family and I traveled to eight American communities, interviewing almost 1,000 Americans on the streets and asking them, "What are the values that connect Americans," and "What do Americans stand for?"
Americans in New York, Cleveland, Williamsport (PA), Los Angeles, Atlanta, Little Rock, Denver and Minneapolis-St. Paul consistently spoke about the same values: they referred to equality, family, faith, freedom, love and respect, self-expression, community, giving back, the good life, opportunity, success and doing the right thing as important to them and to those they knew. How then, could these values be either red or blue? It seemed clear to me then, as it does now, that America is purple.
Could it be that there really is more agreement in America than we have been led to believe? And if so, why does it matter? It matters because, like a self-fulfilling prophecy, the myth of polarization can become a reality if we believe it to be true. If you believe that our country is in a culture war, you may not believe that there's room for resolution. But, if you believe that the majority of Americans see the world through a similar lens, then you may believe that there's room for conversation. Conversation is what we need!
Could it be that when Americans speak of their frustrations with Congress and the political process, what they are really frustrated with is the polarization of the parties, because it doesn't reflect the "real" America, where people live in relative harmony and speak civilly to one another?
There are a lot of political sound bites these days about income inequality, corporate responsibility, opportunity, fairness, freedom and the role of government. This rhetoric will only increase leading up to the presidential election. In the process, we will have more diatribe over dialogue, more conflict over conversation. An America that represents the 90% that does get along will become collateral damage as the politicians and their strategists engage in their own media "culture war."
Whether Democrat or Republican, it's up to responsible Americans to reclaim the conversation. Only through conversation, can we get to common ground, greater good and a country that sets the moral example for all our children and the world.
So how can we turn the tide? I'm asking you to re-imagine america based on the 12 values mentioned about. I'm asking you to think about what equality means to you and then to respect -- because this is America -- what it means to others, and then to imagine an America where we have found common ground on that issue. What would it look like? How would it be the same? How would it be different? How can we get there?
Talk to your friends, neighbors, colleagues and children. Post your ideas on the Purple America Facebook page or email me at stuartm@Purpleamerica.us. Together, let's restart the conversation. I'm looking forward to hearing your thoughts.
"Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has." -- Margaret Mead
To find out more about America's shared values, go to www.Purpleamerica.us
Follow Stuart Muszynski at www.twitter.com/purpleamericaus
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