2016 Would Have Been Divisive With Or Without Donald Trump

I hate to state the obvious, but 2016 was a smorgasbord of division. Hillary Clinton vs. Bernie Sanders, Donald Trump vs. the entire Republican Party establishment, real fake news (like The Daily Show) vs. fake real news (like Infowars)… it makes you almost nostalgic for the simpler days of Left vs. Right. It's clear looking back that 2016 was divisive in a way that we’ve never experienced before. Rather than having one straightforward disagreement (like North vs. South or Clinton vs. Trump), we had fractal disagreements as well, with fights within fights and rancor between allies.

Layered on top of this was an equally unprecedented distance between the opposing sides: the intellectual and ideological bubbles that we lived in grew more solid and opaque, so much so that the Wall Street Journal created a feature that allowed readers to see typical Facebook feeds for conservative and liberal users side-by-side.

These two separate phenomena swirled together to create a political climate in which the ground seemed to be shifting beneath our feet, and it became difficult not only to read the crowd, but also to read the people standing next to us. For all of the interconnection of the digital age, 2016 was a year during which it was possible to feel very, very lonely.

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And the link between isolation and divisiveness shouldn't be overlooked — the more we feel separated from those around us, the easier it may be to give in to apathy and self-centeredness. A lot of the discussion following the election among those on the left centered on the idea that Clinton spent too much time talking about identity politics and not enough time on the economic populism that Bernie Sanders pushed. But this is essentially a disagreement over privileging one kind of empathy over another — the struggles of women and minorities versus the struggle of the poor, specifically the white working class.

What surprises me — and worries me — is that these ideas are being presented as mutually exclusive, as if the Democratic party has to court one or the other. That’s not only a silly proposition, but a false one, and one of the politicians who proved it most recently was Clinton herself. As NPR’s Domenico Montanaro pointed out in his post-election assessment, in her 2000 Senate campaign, Clinton masterfully campaigned both upstate and downstate and won her Senate seat by 12 points.

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If nothing else, this election has underscored the idea that even as we are all Americans, our lives and our worlds have less and less in common with one another, and I have to think that a good part of this is related to the fact that we no longer trust the same sources of information. There’s no Walter Cronkite, Peter Jennings, or even Tom Brokaw (not that they all need to be straight white dudes, but they previously have been) whom we can all agree provide us neutral information. The very concept of “neutral information” is under attack, it seems to me mostly from the right (I mean, there’s a site called “Infowars”), and objectivity seems to be a lost cause.

Where do we go from here? I honestly don’t know. We need someone we can unite behind as a country, but neither party has anyone whom I think is particularly well-suited to the job. Even Barack Obama, who leaves office with soaring popularity, still incites violent opposition in many Americans. We need someone with whom we can start having a national conversation again, a new Oprah, perhaps. Someone we can all trust.

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Without that, I don’t see how our country survives the next century, or even the next decade. We may barely make it through this next presidency.