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Explaining Our Evenly Divided Selves

November 5th, 2020 by dk

America is evenly divided and has been for at least 100 years. Time after time, national elections have reflected a split that has always been close to 50/50. Understanding this chasm was never very important before. Although the people of America have been evenly divided for a long time, they only recently became deeply divided.

Political leaders have displayed a bitterness in this separation for a while. The last 40 years have seen the erosion of collegiality and compromise on Capitol Hill, but it didn’t affect how regular Americans lived their lives.

That bitterness is now reaching the kitchen tables of America. Deeply held convictions that accepted no middle ground was always reserved for sports rivalries. Politics was hushed in polite company. That has changed over the past decade or so, leaving us no safe harbors.

We must now face and try to understand how half of us see the world so differently than the other half. A few theories have been offered over the years. I’ll add one more.

If you look at a nationwide map of vote majorities by county, you’ll see a nation that looks mostly red. The occasional blue spots point to cities. The red map shows an America that is conservative almost everywhere — except where people live. There’s a clear divide between rural and urban Americas. People with enough room want less government.

Others have suggested that the division is primarily generational. Young people often greet the world as liberals, but then grow more conservative with age. As a conservative friend once quipped, “A conservative is just a liberal whose gotten mugged.” The school of hard knocks teaches many of us conservative values over time.

A third theory is that America was built on two ideals, not one, and that they are in constant tension. “All people are created equal” is the foundation of democracy. But capitalism — our other core conviction — believes that everyone competes everyday to exceed their peers. Democracy makes us all equal. Capitalism makes us each distinct.

I’m seeing a different explanation emerge, but I have to warn readers that I will be abandoning the polite company rule to explain it. The next paragraph will make my liberal friends very happy. The paragraph that follows it will make them very upset.

One side loves science. They believe in truth. They catalog ever misrepresentation by leading politicians, counting the times they run afoul of the truth. Truthfulness is literally equated with moral character and ethical behavior. Every inconsistency reveals ineptitude or indecency. Those who abide immoralities are therefore immoral.

The other side puts primacy on something else. They choose beauty. They follow what looks right or sounds right, even if it doesn’t turn out to BE right. That doesn’t make them wrong. Or it does make them wrong, but it doesn’t make them bad. Being right on everything can sometimes make you ugly. Who wants that?

Truth and beauty. Each embodies a value that is necessary but not sufficient. We need both algebra and geometry to understand the world. Now we need both to understand each other.


Don Kahle ( writes a column each Friday for The Register-Guard and archives past columns at

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