American discourse often splits along enduring fault lines: Republican and Democrat; majority and minority; citizen and foreigner. Yet our newest fault line is more troubling, intractable, and toxic.
Over the last year, America’s politics and social discourse have grown increasingly unsettled as an array of cracks and fissures became evident in the country’s social contract. Across a wide range of issues, Americans today are confronted by the vocal demands or concerns of “Others,” those sitting outside the cultural and political status quo who feel abandoned, ignored, or attacked by the country’s stakeholders.
These Others are not a cohesive group, nor do they necessarily have anything in common with one another, but their presence and the uncomfortable nature of the issues they raise has fractured the general national dialogue.
Prominent Others include the #BlackLivesMatter protestors challenging police brutality in inner cities and the students taking over college campuses to protest unfair racial norms. They include the Planned Parenthood employees targeted with violence and invective for doing their jobs. And they include Syrian refugees, fleeing a vicious, self-destructive war, who seek to build new lives in the U.S.
The shift in focus this year is uncomfortable for everyone who identifies themselves as being on the inside of the status quo, because it is not a matter of finding a legislative solution or developing a public-private partnership. Americans and our elected leaders would prefer to confront and debate generically universal issues such as unemployment, economic competitiveness, homelessness, and access to education, rather than issues defined by differences in identity, skin color and religion.
The schism wrought by the Others requires a reassessment of American values and a realignment with reality today. But except in isolated instances, we are failing to address these issues in a substantive, productive manner, choosing instead to retreat into to the warm security blanket of a prosperous status quo.
Nowhere is this unwillingness to understand or engage with the Other more starkly evident than in the Republican presidential primary, which has become a populist weather vane for blaming and demonizing the full array of “Others” for America’s ills. Complaints once aired exclusively on the Rush Limbaugh Show have now become talking points to denigrate legitimate concerns and grievances.
Yet pointing fingers at Republican politicians and primary voters alone is a partisan copout. Mainstream America–literally encompassing everyone who has succeeded within the current status quo, including President Barack Obama–is struggling to comprehend and keep up with the upending of a tacit agreement to avoid full-blown confrontations over the needs of Others. The historical passivity and tunnel vision perspective of America’s problems explains why we were caught off guard by the intensity of #BlackLivesMatter and related movements, by the continued existence of anti-abortion terrorists, and by the renewed rejection and demonization of an entire religion.
As recently as last year, firmly establishing a group as an Other made it easier to justify ignoring their needs or rejecting their American-ness. We cannot ignore this array of unrelated challenges to our social fabric; but we must recognize that there are no simple, easy solutions to any of these problems–we waited for them to resolve themselves and that didn’t happen.
In a Midwest restaurant last week, an Indian-American friend was derided by a stranger as a terrorist because of his skin color. The bigot who made the comment didn’t know that my friend was a lawyer. Or a military officer. All he knew was that he seemed like one of the Others. The consequences to keeping groups of people on the outside of the status quo extends far beyond the incomplete debate that ensues; it eventually trickles down to affect even those who are established within American society and do not see themselves as Others.
We are reaching a contemporary inflection point where a significant number of Americans or people who dream of becoming Americans no longer feel welcomed or understood in this country. There is a prevalent sense of alienation among many who could be categorized as Other. And it won’t be dealt with by a partisan sound bite, by giving in to fear and hatred, or by sticking our heads in the sand.
Confronting the wants and needs of Others is uncomfortable. It doesn’t necessarily end with full-blown agreement. We cannot expect to achieve racial harmony, social accord, or multicultural interfaith cooperation. But the comfort currently provided by the status quo will prove to be futile and fleeting if too many Americans or aspiring Americans believe the country refuses to look out for their needs and interests.
We don’t need to solve everyone’s problems. Some problems may not be ours to solve. But we do need to accept that the existence of these Others and their concerns is not itself a problem. Their issues should be mainstream issues. If we truly seek, in the words of Donald Trump, to “make America great again,” the lives of Others must once again become the lives of Americans.
Brian Wagner lives in Arlington, Virginia and is a Vice President at ScoutComms, working with organizations that support veterans and military families. He is a Partner at the Truman National Security Project, a Navy Reserve officer and a former Congressional staffer. All opinions are his own and do not represent those of ScoutComms, the U.S. Navy or the Department of Defense.
Photo: The All-Nite Images via Flickr