America is a melting pot of ideas as much it is of people, and political differences are just one of the defining characteristics of our country. We have willingly embraced the messiness of a government by the people, secure in the knowledge that if we didn’t like the way things were going, we would always have a chance to change it, or at least contribute to that change.
But something else has changed, and it has torn us apart in a way we never could have imagined.
There was a time when the nation as a whole agreed on a basic set of outcomes: we all wanted our communities to be safe, we all wanted to ensure a quality education for our children, we all wanted access to high quality, affordable healthcare, and we all want a strong economy that delivers the opportunity to live what we once called the American Dream. We shared a belief in the principles and values of America — of our constitutional rights, of the goal of equality, of freedom of speech — and implicit in these beliefs was a shared understanding of what we didn’t want to become: a monarchy, a dictatorship, or just another country that surrenders our individual freedoms to a government.
One of the exceptional attributes of the United States was always that we were a continuous work in progress, pursuing all of the above goals for all of our people, and in that pursuit, we set an example for the world. It was Ronald Reagan who reminded us that we were the shining city on the hill for all to see and aspire to.
In the past, the things that divided us — whether we were Democrats, Republicans, liberals, conservatives or anywhere in between — were not our destinations, but our paths to reach them. It was pretty clear that we all wanted the same things, and ideologies were simply divergent paths to the fulfillment of our common interests. With that knowledge in hand, our system has been structured to deliver opportunities to whatever or whoever worked best, with the people deciding the result based on our common goals and shared definition of success.
So, for example, if the conservative approach of giving tax cuts to affluent people succeeds in creating more jobs and a greater overall economic benefit than a liberal approach of direct stimulus that targets the lower to middle class, than my liberal ideology doesn’t matter. Our ideological paths may have been different, but our destination — a shared understanding of the common good — was always the same, at least for the large majority of America.
Safe neighborhoods, good schools, affordable healthcare, fairness, equality, opportunity — if the right path to these things didn’t completely match our ideological perspective, we could live with that as long as we were on our way to achieving those things.
But something fundamental has changed. Today we not only disagree on the path, we also disagree on the destinations. To take just one example, we now live in a nation in which an uncomfortable percentage of people have adopted a belief in supremacy over equality — something that would have been unthinkable (or at least unknown) just 20 years ago except for the remote fringes of society. What our Constitution once claimed was a self-evident truth no longer is, and the resulting political differences have become highly personal, severing relationships, disrupting families and polarizing our country with unprecedented volatility. Today, we are far more likely to consider one group’s success as contingent upon another group’s demise — a zero-sum ethic in place of a rising-tide-raises-all-boats belief.
What has happened to us?
The kneejerk response is to blame the other side, to blame the president, to blame Congress, to blame the media (whichever version of the media we don’t agree with), to blame immigrants, to blame video games, or any number of other convenient scapegoats. But the cause of our division is a bit more complex, and understanding it also requires that we step back and examine some of the basic truths that make America unique.
In our unrelenting pursuit of happiness and the relative freedom to do it, we have relinquished nearly all of our power to the forces of capitalism. This is understandable because we the people value freedom at a deep instinctual level, and no form of government — and capitalism today, is effectively a form of government — does a better job of giving us the illusion of freedom even as it manages to impede actual freedom. That alone might seem enough of a reason to reject the entire approach in favor of a fully socialist system or some other alternative, but blaming capitalism for injustice is like a bad driver blaming his car for an accident. This is not an anti-capitalist rant; capitalism itself is amoral — it’s instead a selection of wayward capitalists that can be immoral.
With that in mind, let’s set aside the substantial moral failings and successes of those who pull the levers of capitalism and consider the marvel of capitalistic efficiency in our current life and times.
Beginning from its earliest days, the institutions of commerce have achieved an ever-accelerating state of continuous improvement in pursuit of ever-greater profit. Within just the last two decades, capitalism has found a way to permeate and extract value from even the deepest recesses of our minds, eliciting dopamine-driven profit-generating behaviors that sometimes circumvent our own consciousness. A stark example of this is smartphones and the technology behind them, which have essentially rewired our brains to respond upon command to the stimuli that the most advanced data-driven capitalists have placed in front of us.
Whether the results are employed for good or evil, it is impossible to deny that the innovations and efficiencies that have been achieved by today’s capitalism are both astonishing and disorienting. But to even begin to get our bearings, we must also grasp the scope of capitalism’s penetration across nearly every “touchpoint” of our lives.
The reality of America today is that capitalism has overflowed the riverbanks of conventional commerce and fully saturated every realm of society at a level never before experienced. Our most personal information is a product, our healthcare is a product, and all of those who govern us are now products too. Where it hasn’t yet completely broke through, capitalism stands at the doorstep of all our once non-commercial institutions, ready to find a way to make money wherever it can. It flows toward profit as water toward the ocean and its as free of moral judgment as even the most devastating tsunami.
The rickety structures built to preserve quaint things like the “common good”, or “societal interests” are no match for capitalism, and many of them have been washed away before we knew what hit us. Capitalism’s growth is now algorithmically exponential, constantly accumulating intelligence, even to the point of convincing us, with tactical effectiveness, that it is a vanguard of goodness — that it is always working in our favor and always on our side.
There are certainly times when the proper application of capitalism has delivered a much greater good to those in need than could any other system, but that is less a direct function of capitalism than it is the constraint of man-made moral imperatives guiding the forces of capitalism in a positive direction. For example, the activities of companies that give money to fight a dreaded disease are all for the good, but make no mistake, the underlying motive for those activities is almost always the profitability that comes from burnishing a corporate reputation and/or reducing a tax liability. We can harp on the “in-authenticity” of those motives, but any notion of capitalism being authentic is erroneous, ascribing a human attribute to a dynamic that is always driven by a single motive. Capitalism dons the regalia of morality only when the guardrails are established to align capitalist outcomes with moral behavior — something we should celebrate far more than some illusion of authenticity that appears to make profit anything other than sacrosanct.
When Live-Aid organizer Bob Geldof was asked about the publicity-seeking motives of all the musical artists who helped raise millions for famine relief through their concert in 1985, he gave the perfect answer: “So?”
Clearly, capitalism can help do a lot of good when it operates within the spotlight of full societal awareness and oversight, but today the majority of capitalist activity rarely breaks the surface of public consciousness, and because things like reputation and shame still exert a constraining influence, it’s the under-the-radar capitalism that should command our attention most. We have little hope of driving positive capitalist behavior and protecting the common good if we are unaware that those things are at risk. Capitalism doesn’t care how many elephants there are, it only cares how much money can be made from ivory, and none of us want to suddenly wake up in a world in which all the elephants are gone.
We all know that capitalism is customer-driven, responding to the demand of its prospects in whatever ways are necessary to close the sale. One of the many awe-inspiring attributes of mature capitalism is its ability to evolve its product so that it is customized and personalized to suit our individual needs. A once monochrome industry of black Model T’s has evolved into an unfathomable array of automobiles in every possible color, model, style and brand, and the same applies to the products of most other industries, diversified to deliver ever-greater satisfaction to their customers.
This is a dynamic known as de-commoditization, in which a product or service that was once the same for everyone (aka a commodity) is individually tailored to drive customer growth and loyalty. And because it is so often a path to profit, capitalism is a master at de-commoditizing things, taking even products that we might never have imagined being diversified and turning them into profit-centers for various customer segments.
Because we don’t want to wake up to a world without elephants, our times call for the diligence necessary to recognize that everything is a potential product, and in fact, some things that should never be capitalized upon need to be rescued before they become completely extinct. This brings us to the one most important product that needs to be extricated from the machinery of capitalism. That product is the truth.
Without us even being fully aware of it, the commodity of truth — one of the most fundamental pillars of our society — has been de-commoditized and reformulated into a differentiated product.
For obvious reasons, the term “Truth” is a misnomer in its new form, because we have always considered truth to be the ultimate commodity: the one thing in our lives that is the same for everyone. Capitalism still had a role — except for Public radio and television, the private sector has always been responsible for the differentiated distribution of truth by media channel, even if it couldn’t differentiate the actual product. Differentiation — what little there was — took place at the channel level, based on how well the product of truth could be wrapped in the feature of “trust”. We could choose Walter Cronkite, Huntley-Brinkley or Peter Jennings, but the end product was always the same for the end-user: we were getting a fairly consensus-version of a trustworthy product and we couldn’t imagine getting anything else.
But today, truth is just like any other commercial product, customized for our consumption, accessorized with alternative facts and packaged to drive greater loyalty and growth. Any universally moral obligation to tell the truth has been obliterated by the tsunami of capitalism. The truth as the commodity it once was is just no longer profitable, and perhaps most disturbing of all, there are large customer segments that no longer wish to consume the truth as we once knew it. As an amoral system, capitalism’s only imperative is to give the customer what it wants in pursuit of profit, and in our current state of being, that means a customized — or de-commoditized — version of the truth.
But capitalism wasn’t about to stop there, because every good capitalist knows that once you’ve got a customer, you need to do everything you can to retain them, maximize your monetization of them and protect your market share. Capitalist doctrine says that a strong and profitable customer base is a loyal one, and the cumulative learnings of centuries of capitalism have refined the science of building customer loyalty down to the single most important element necessary to establish the strongest possible connection: emotion.
Consider the typical set of logical reasons for us to buy something: price, convenience, affinity, social good. These are standard product features, but good capitalists know that emotional connections are the strongest drivers of consumption and you can only get so emotional about a commodity.
This is where the concept of a brand comes in: we buy into a particular brand because it connects with us in some way along an emotional spectrum, whether it makes us laugh, addresses a fear, elevates our status or some other visceral manipulation of our state of mind. There is a wide range of emotions to tap in the capitalist toolbox and most all of them have been used to sell product. Certain emotions fit well with certain products, but more importantly, some emotions create a stronger bond with the customer than others, and in the most competitive markets — where products are going head-to-head to hold on to their customers — the emotional connection can be the only thing standing in the way of losing that customer. That means employing the most powerful emotions in the toolbox — the ones that are going appeal to the most visceral reptilian brains we have to override our powers of logic.
When selling a differentiated version of “truth,” it is essential to suppress logic because “truth” is a mutually exclusive product. Since you can’t “buy” more than one version of it, the competition for who sells their version of the truth to you is cutthroat. For those who market a particular customized version of the truth, that means pulling out the biggest, most powerful tool in the emotional toolbox: Fear.
When used for maximum effect, fear is a reliable toxin that can overrule our powers of logic, putting us into a low-level but continuous state of self-preservation. And because it is one of our most primitive emotions, it creates a high barrier to exit for customers. Keeping customers from buying into a competitive truth is a crucial strategy for maintaining customer loyalty, and fear is only one of a two-pronged formula. That other part — the supplementary emotion that keeps those barriers high — is anger. When turned up to its maximum (as “truth” merchants are skilled at doing), anger becomes hatred. Fear, anger and hatred are of great use to capitalists because, when fully deployed, you don’t need to worry about how great your product is; you can instead rely on the emotional power of your customers hating or fearing all of the other products competing with you.
In the market of customized truths, a common tactic for generating fear and anger is the production of a conspiracy theory. It can be highly effective because it’s so hard to disprove and neatly self-reinforcing, resulting in the most steadfast customer loyalty. For those who accept the conspiracy, anyone who disagrees with them is either part of the conspiracy or living in an endangered state of ignorance.
Fear, anger, hatred, conspiracies — we’re just talking about propaganda, right?
Well, not really, because unlike propaganda — which is more of a public sector political tactic to accumulate power — truth merchants are commercial players in the private sector motivated to accumulate profit. But then, if political power becomes a means of maximizing profit, what’s the difference? Power, political or otherwise, is simply another steppingstone to profit.
We naturally think of wielders of political power in all of their forms — a president, Congress, the Supreme Court and the local governments and courts — as being the “governing” authorities of our system and society, with commerce being just one institution of many. But today, we need only peel back the thin layer of illusory public servants to see the machinery of high-powered capitalism, hard at work to maximize profit as they control the servants that we think are working for us.
Of course, we’ve been talking for many years about the influence of too much money in government and the need for campaign finance reform, but it was always discussed without a full understanding of just how powerful the influence is. In our current reality, the sophistication of capitalism is so refined that we have reached a tipping point — one in which the belief that we could actually control our government is enough to sustain the status quo and there is just the right amount of deception to maintain that belief. This points to one of the newest and more powerful tools in the capitalist toolbox: the ability to give us the illusion of control.
The illusion of control is the reason why we have willingly relinquished our privacy, why we tolerate billions of dollars in pharmaceutical ads, why we believe we exert a meaningful controlling influence on all of our elected representatives and why we choose a particular version of the truth. In fact, much of our government has been zombified, skilled in dispersing platitudes that give us an illusion of control.
This all sounds very dark and Manchurian, if not at least Orwellian, but there is a path forward.
Our problem today is easy to spot: we are deeply polarized — a ‘‘non-United” States that has lost our belief in the common good and our common “destinations”: peace, safety, health, education, equality, opportunity and shared prosperity. The reason this has been lost is because we no longer have a common truth — a single set of facts upon which the concept of a common good can be based.
And why is that? Because, as we observed, a common truth is just not profitable. Capitalism has found that it is more profitable to get us to hate or fear each other then it is for us to come together. And it really works!
We noted that it’s easy to blame each other, to blame each other’s favorite politicians and to blame each other’s favorite media purveyor of the “truth”. As just one example, there is a virulent hatred toward Donald Trump that is felt by at least half of our populace, but we need to do our best to set our emotion aside and recognize that he is just a symptom of our dysfunction. As a capitalist himself — and whether he’s fully conscious of it or not — he is the ideal personification of capitalism’s effective use of hatred-generation as a means of acquiring and maintaining power, but he could not have acquired his position of power without us as a society reaching a tipping point toward acceptance of customized truth.
Our state of high-capitalism has now mutated to stir up our differences with a well-calculated array of emotional hot-buttons that will give us the illusion of control, make us fearful or angry, and deliver our customized version of the truth to solidify loyalty. Today’s capitalism is a highly refined machine with big data complexity, offering us continuous stimuli in exchange for a profitable response.
Consider how our shared fears have become pervasive to the point where many of us don’t even talk to each other about the state of our country. Nationwide, millions of conversations between people who do not know each other are characterized by cautious probing to assess tribal affiliation, if not complete avoidance of anything that could wander into meaningful discussions about what might be good for all of us. Ironically, these fears might be the most common ground of all.
But I suspect there is much more common ground than we realize. Writings like James and Deborah Fallows Our Towns observe that there is far more unity then division at the grassroots of our country. We are not nearly as divided as those who profit from division would like us to think we are.
Based on all the above meditations on capitalism, one might conclude that it is not a good thing. The reality is that capitalism is still the best and most efficient way known to man to innovate and allocate products and services to large populations. But as with most inventions of humanity, its moral impact is based on how it is used rather than what it is, which points to the accountability we all have in determining how it is used and how it is controlled. That begins with healing our divides and rebuilding the civility of a society that is analogous to a flooded village suffering from tsunamic shock. It is a daunting undertaking that can only be done en masse.
Where to begin?
Our first step will be to find a way to return “truth” to its proper function and classification as a commodity. The mechanics of that solution lie somewhere between what we have now and an extreme “ministry of truth”, but the levers no doubt involve the elevation of virtues, like honesty, transparency, integrity and accountability.
Second, our foothold for a common truth could be the resurrection of our understanding that the vast majority of us still have the same desires — those common destinations of achieving safe neighborhoods, good schools, affordable healthcare and a fair opportunity to realize our own definition of prosperity.
Thirdly, we need to revive the concept of shame and its accompanying consequence of social condemnation. As truth re-emerges as a common understanding, so will the shared experience and ultimate denunciation of dishonesty. We have grown tolerant and numb to untruths and must now undergo a process of dishonesty detoxification to reclaim a healthy sense of outrage and rectitude.
I don’t know exactly how we do that, but I suspect it will be a long gradual climb out of the muck. It will take the type of leadership that is so clearly imbued with virtue and good faith that others will be willing to defy their customized version of the truth and choose to follow. It will take painful, rigid oversight and re-regulation of certain sectors of capitalism — the equivalent of turning a tsunami into a canal system — and we can be certain it will be confronted by unrelenting money and propaganda committed to status-quo maintenance.
And it will take a critical mass of realization that we do not want to go back to a state of divisiveness that has demoralized us personally and constrained us both socially and economically. These are not ideologically specific calls to action, but they are destination specific. How we get there is a matter of healthy and necessary debate, but we should continually remind ourselves of who we are.
America was always a destination — always a work in progress, for our nation as a whole and for each of us as individuals. Our name itself — the United States — is an exceptional oxymoron, in which our unity is inseparably tied to our belief in our state of individuality. This is the healthy tension that frames our respectful dialogue about how we all succeed, driving us, in good faith, toward our common destination.
This is our path forward.