According to David Sirota, there is a real divide in America. I agree with the overall premise which is: ideological divides in this country are best defined in terms of individualism versus institutionalism. If you can't stomach that notion, then stop here. If you can recognize that these specific ideological positions have been staked out over some vital issues, then by all means, please read on.

The 'red States' versus 'blue States' model doesn't hold much weight unless you're an Election Day statistician. Even the Republican versus Democrat idiom has become less relevant. Our society has shifted from the days when those conflicts raged. Now, shell-shocked by 9/11, global economic discord, and a vastly transformed society, we fumble with a political puzzle box formed in part by individualist and institutionalist ideology and rhetoric. No one person is all one or the other. I certainly am not. We are all a grey area, but some prominent ideological disagreements taking shape in the evening news and on the front page of our newspapers, and in the public squares in major cities around the globe, are all directly linked with this specific ideological divide.

The strong, inflexible rhetoric coming out of Congress and on cable news is not making things any easier. It's not reflective of the thoughtfulness of Americans at large. We are smarter than that. It is possible to feel that Big Government is out of control, and yet embrace the necessity of programs like Social Security and Medicare. You can harbor deep distrust of Corporations, yet believe strongly in rugged individualism, entrepreneurship and weaker regulations on start-ups and small businesses. You can despise Government assistance but stand up for the rights of oppressed minorities. You can love God and take a stand on behalf of non-documented immigrants. You can carry conflicting notions in your toolkit at the same time.

Despite our tendency as Americans to avoid fitting any one mold, it's still vital to examine competing ideologies of individualism and institutionalism, lest we convince ourselves that this whole debate is silly and about nothing. I know people who feel that way. They don't think any of it matters very much. They think we're all the same and wasting our time putting labels on everything. I'm here to say that they are wrong. It does matter.

Labels can be destructive, but in discussing opposing ideologies, we are able to make ourselves more aware of how we really stand on the issues. That way, we can stop simply parroting talking points and simplistic tropes, and start giving detailed and nuanced instructions to our servants on the mount, and kick them out of office if we feel they are stalling results, as many of them do.

Many individualists - often Ayn Rand and Milton Friedman disciples - feel that that Government regulation destroys the fabric of society by smothering liberty, suppressing extraordinary talent, muffling economic and cultural growth, and tying up human progress in red tape. This individualism espouses a passionate view of humanity. It is full of love for the potential of the human race. All the same, it is little more than a gut sense, a feeling, that we aren't as unbridled as we could be, and therefore not as great as we could be.

I can certainly relate to aspects of Libertarianism, even aspects that I feel lead to destructive policies. I'm sure some of my John Galt-worshiping colleagues can see the value in making incremental, thoughtful contextual judgments about the role of some public institutions to ensure the common good.

Ecstatic, passionate views on individualism and personal choice are one thing. Crafting policies to support those emotions is another thing altogether, as those same policies often disregard reality and end up producing disastrous results.

The undeniable failure of trickle down economics is one such attempt to stake out a real world policy based on a philosophical sensation. Trickle down gave us increased economic inequality, and a new way for executives and money brokers to categorize, shuffle, classify, and quantify money in clever ways that prevent the money from actually trickling down. It gave us little else, and yet here we are, several failed cycles later, and our national memory is failing us again. We have new calls for the same failed policies, packaged and titled differently, but unmistakable. Most frightening is, our cognitive dissonance is kicking in, historical rewrites are already underway, and the vast inequality we see now is only, terrifyingly, a warm up for what is to come. Welcome to dystopia.

Liberal policy has its share of wasteful, corrupt misuse of public funding in misguided attempts to combat poverty and illness. What separates it from specific economic theories like trickle down is that, social welfare, when implemented smartly, works. Unlike trickle down, there is historical evidence to prove that it works, not just a 'gut feeling.'

Our country, despite what revisionists have been telling you, has a long and largely successful history of responding to crisis and inequality by implementing social welfare programs, programs ostensibly carried through by institutions, either on a Federal, State, or pseudo-private level (or a combination of all three), resulting in vast improvement for Americans, in health, in working conditions, and quality of life. Between the years 1900 and 1929, we implemented all sorts of job safety and workers' compensation laws that really changed the working landscape for Americans, and more specifically, for women. Workers who previously had no representation and were little more than indentured servants for private companies suddenly had political representation that only their employers previously clung to.

The campaign against Unions, by the way, likes to remind us that Unions are corrupt and sabotage their own effectiveness, and therefore need to be obliterated. Following that logic, it seems clear that we also need to obliterate the Military, many large Corporations, most civic programs, almost any group of people trying to work together, and a good number of individuals. Unions, apart from being fallible, and arguably bloated institutions, have been effective, when no one else could be, in ensuring moral and economic injustice for people who would otherwise have no real political representation. To call for the obliteration of a flawed system is a bit like throwing the baby out with the bathwater, and the baby, in this case, represents the last hope for working Americans, and is also, very much not coincidentally, related to the biggest problem facing our nation right now: jobs and job security.

Additionally, in the seventy or so years following the Great Depression, there have been close to twenty major  welfare programs (among them, Public Housing laws, Food Stamps and school lunch vouchers, medical programs, Social Security, medicare, the GI Bill) that have arguably fortified the opportunities for entry into a sustainable middle class lifestyle. In addition to welfare programs, we've won women's rights and Civil Rights battles by pushing for institutional reform, not just individual reform. Resultant legislation has enabled for representation where it otherwise would not be possible.

We're now being told, primarily by Objectivists in Congress and the right leaning pundits online and on television, that the vast majority of these programs, despite decades of prosperity as evidence, are not only abject failures but, like Unions, unnecessary and dangerous.

Which moral and ideological approach - institutionalism or individualism - leads to the most successful and prosperous society? There will never be unanimous agreement on this topic. There are two opposed ideologies, and we Americans pick and choose from each, cafeteria style. We may not be one or the other, and Representatives who falsely claim most Americans are one or the other are deceiving us by simplifying the debate to narrow our perceived choices down to less than what's actually there. They're lying.

While some of us are rooted in faith of self and of market forces, and some in faith in Institutions to regulate and keep us safe, I can't think of many of us who want all or nothing. Why then are we letting our Representatives conduct themselves as if that is the case?

There is a very real ideological divide in this country. I would love to tell you that deep down, we all have the same exact desires for the kind of society we want to be, but we don't. Our complexity is not the enemy, though. It's our tendency to, through a simplistic reading of events, fall for the manipulative ubiquity of outrageous, exploitative demagoguery. It's nothing new in politics, but it is worse than ever... let no one tell you differently.

When I was younger I avoided labels at all costs. I felt labels unfairly painted groups with too broad a brush. I felt that everybody was the same, or at least the same 'at heart.' I still hear it in political speeches often, this sentiment that 'we are all the same.' It's common to hear that 'if you were to strip down the facade, we all want the same thing for this country.' I think that these lovely platitudes about common ground are true in terms of human desire, perhaps emotion and psychology and biological needs.

Social progressives feel that devastating and divisive phenomena like racism, poverty, and inequality are institutional in nature. In other words, the phenomena are enabled by society and by institutions, not as a single  deliberate act or a series of individual decisions, but as a reflexive institutional response to an amoral force pushing up without regard for the disenfranchisement it causes. Institutional problems of this nature that are allowed to go unchecked result in vast gulfs between groups of people of varying races and incomes. The biggest way to combat these problems is to enable public consensus on any of these topics, and to introduce legislation that represents this public consensus. Our society needs an occasional 'mic check,' or 'roll call,' or an 'active sync' on problems of the day.

The problem the problems I have outlined above - apathy, a lack of discussion on an issue, media flack and political demagoguery - is that they have made an honest or accurate reading of real public consensus very, very difficult to do. Even the best polls are countered with studies funded by think tanks to discredit them.

On top of that, we have amoral forces pushing up regardless of established public consensus, and the biggest one I can think of is the profit motive. That motive does not have to be destructive. It can benefit some more than others - it can be disproportionate, in other words -but it can be infused with a conscience.

Infuse the profit motive with a conscience dents but does not destroy the bottom line. It requires a believe that the wealthiest Americans don't accumulate their wealth in a vacuum. It requires a - forgive the overused term - paradigm shift in the way companies do business. Before that will ever happen on a wider scale, a frank discussion - a very philosophical one - about the nature of poverty, wealth, Individual choice, and Institutional consensus must take place. Can wealth itself be considered institutional? Is the acquisition of wealth itself an institutional consequence, and are protests today an attempt on behalf of the public to establish a consensus on that? I don't know the answer, because all I see are a bunch of people flickering their fingers up at me and telling me that they're the movement of no movement, that they take pride in having no demands.

Individualists want none of this. For them, it's much simpler. Phenomena like racism, sexism, poverty, and general inequality are caused by individual choice - when people do harm to other people, period. For them, treating people poorly is a choice, and if that choice goes against the public interest, then that choice will be discouraged and become incompatible with the market, or by whatever justice system is in place. In the individualist view, a true free market has no place for divisive elements. It is a kind of utopia where forces of supply and demand dictate their own version of morality, and fix themselves when they go awry.

When it comes to the way we see poverty, immigration from other countries, acquisition of assets like homes, hot button issues like abortion, and even global issues like foreign assistance, third world poverty and disease, and National Defense, it is utterly naive to not recognize that there are competing approaches to how to handle these problems. We are not all the same. We should have demands. It's not appeasement to have an agenda. It's not selling out to use the system to your advantage. Government is, after all, capable of being an institution not dissimilar from a Corporation, only vested in the public interest rather than the private. I believe that fundamental reform that pave the way for this. Now, imagine, in addition to a Government actually in the hands of the people, that successful companies possessed a fundamental mandate to also, like Government, work in the long term interests of the communities they inhabit and the people who keep them running. In a world like that, I can't imagine anything we couldn't do.


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