“I’m worried about our country gorging on hate,” says David Smick, an economist, author and the director of a new documentary, Stars and Strife. “America is going through an identity crisis, so I’m on a journey in search of answers.”
So begins the new documentary Stars and Strife, Smick’s examination of the current state of polarization in the U.S.
Examining the State of Polarization in the US
From white supremacy and QAnon to income inequality and dark money, these days, extreme feels like the new norm. Extreme gets the clicks and retweets; moderate gets ignored. But it’s not just the peanut gallery that’s rowdy. Politicians are more interested in wins for their party than productive governing, Smick says, and their behavior on the congressional floor can make CSPAN look like WWE.
How did we descend to this place of incivility, and how do we climb out?
The Common Ground Committee and the Bridge Alliance brought together a panel discussion featuring New York Times columnist, David Brooks as moderator along with David Smick and three of the public figures in his film — Leon Panetta, former Secretary of Defense; Hawk Newsome, New York Chairperson and of Black Lives Matter; and Katherine Gehl, appointed by President Barack Obama to serve on the Board of Directors of the Overseas Private Investment Corporation.
In the panel, as in the film, their experiences, observations, and in some cases, institutional memory offered insight on the country’s quandary—and what it might take to emerge stronger.
Key Highlights from Our Panel Discussion
David Smick: I wanted to make this film because I thought the country was in trouble. I read one day that the average empire lasts about 250 years, and of course we’re about 250 years old. And it dawned on me that we’re in trouble. So I went to some of the best documentary makers in this country and said, I want to do this documentary. And [it’s about] two things. How did we get in this mess, and how do we get out?
Leon Panetta: I’ve often said that in my 50-plus years of public life, I’ve seen Washington at its best, and Washington at its worst. The good news is, I’ve seen Washington work…[Politicians] had their differences, but when it came to national issues, whether it was a Democratic president or a Republican president, they worked together to try to resolve those issues. And during the Reagan administration, my goodness, we passed immigration reform, we passed tax reform, we passed Social Security reform, we passed budgets, and we worked on issues of foreign affairs together. So there was a real sense that nation came before party when it came to those issues. Within the last 20 years, it’s changed dramatically. It’s obviously more partisan than I’ve ever seen it, more divided than I’ve ever seen it, it’s almost trench warfare between the parties. They’re all in their trenches and they’re throwing grenades at one another. If anybody wanders into no-man’s-land, they could get shot in the back, much less shot by the enemy, because they’re worried about losing the support of their own party. So that divisiveness, that partisanship, has in many ways paralyzed the system so that major issues are not being dealt with because parties don’t trust one another. They have no sense of being able to and talk through their differences. And more importantly, when I was there, I think governing was good politics, I really do. But I’m not so sure they think that governing is good politics now. And I think they pay a price for that, in the paralysis and gridlock that we now see.
Katherine Gehl: I like to say, Washington isn’t broken, it’s fixed. Washington is fixed because Washington is doing what it’s designed to do, but it’s not designed to serve the public interest. It’s been designed and optimized now to serve this whole political industry. And the political industry is thriving even if the American public has never been more dissatisfied. So I agree with the Secretary that governing is no longer good politics. And I think, here’s what we need to do. Yes, we can call on [the leadership] to do the right thing. But if we can combine that with
an electoral situation where solving problems for the American people is directly connected with getting re-elected, that would be the key. Whereas right now, dysfunction, gridlock, and demonizing the other side is what’s connected with getting re-elected. So unless we change the party primary that everybody is afraid of, and unless we change the way we vote so we can have more competition to put pressure on the existing parties, we won’t put pressure on the existing parties that if they don’t do what’s needed someone else is going to take their place. We’re not going to see a change in the results simply by calling for better — we have to align the incentives of getting and keeping these jobs with solving problems.
David Brooks: One of the things I was thinking about, especially since George Floyd’s killing, is that we talk a lot about civility. And, you know, keep your tempers in check and your passions in check. But since George Floyd’s death, it’s pretty obvious that sometimes to get attention, to move forward, civility isn’t always the right strategy. I mean, passion is sometimes the right strategy, and there are different people with different social roles. And some are radical, and shouting, and crashing open the structures. Then others come in and build. And Black Lives Matter is now famous and celebrated for sort of opening up the structures. How do you think about that issue, passion versus civility?
Hawk Newsome: I think all of this rage comes from a place of love. It’s a love for black people. It’s a love for humanity that guides us to fight. That propels us to shut down a highway. To sometimes destroy some property, right? It’s because you love people because you want a better society, you’ve grown to this place of frustration. Now when we start talking about opening up the roads and building a foundation and building a structure — David does a great job of this in the film — it provides people an opportunity to talk with their guard down. Because we’ll usually be sitting across a table or sitting on some news show and we’re arguing with one another, not even talking to one another, but just trying to win over the audience. And what’s really important now is to listen to one another.
DB: David, you talk about economics and inequality a lot in the film. I’m going to turn pastor for a second. I used to think the Exodus story was the American story. We left depression, we came to the promised land. But when I talk to young people, they say, That’s what people in your generation think… What do you think about that, David? Is American capitalism fundamentally broken and unfair and unequal? Sometimes it seems that way.
DS: I think so. There’s a ruthlessness to capitalism in the last 15 to 20 years that’s really kind of appalling. The entire political establishment can complain about the economy, but they really need to think about how we got to where we are. The Berlin wall falls. China, India, and a host of other countries join the global system. Both parties said hooray. This is great, we did a lot of trading with them, you could buy products cheaper at Walmart. Of course, there was a downside, globalization had a paradoxical element to it. And it wasn’t just that your plant might move to Mexico or China. It was also that globalization led to extraordinarily low-interest rates. And so we’ve seen a 30-year period of low-interest rates. It’s great for stocks. So, half the country owns stocks. The other half doesn’t. The other half are wage earners. So you’ve had this period of stock market bonanza, which is great. A lot of retirement plans benefit. But half the country doesn’t have access to that. And I say that in part contributed to some of the hate, because if you’re not part of the party, there is a sense of humiliation, and your loss of dignity turns to anger and hate.
We talk about income inequality, but there’s also opportunity inequality. Thirty years ago, if you were born into the bottom 25 percent of the economy, you had a 25 percent chance of rising to the top 25 percent. Today, only a five percent chance. You’re working hard at your job, and you’re not getting ahead, or your children have sacrificed and they’re not getting in. That is the whole crucible for fear, anger, humiliation — in particular, if you fall out of the middle class. You thought you had it made to the middle class, and you fall out of that. You can see that sense of helplessness and fear…. They’re the ones that feel like they don’t have a home. So they’re taking a ride with Trump. They look at the offensive stuff he says, but they say, What else do I have?
HN: Well, we believe behind all of the racism there is classism. I just want to touch back on the American Dream. The American Dream — to most folks who are outside this country, and what a lot of people experience here — is the American Nightmare for foundational black Americans, the people who built this country for nothing…. There should not be two and three generations of people on welfare and public housing. But, are we teaching black kids about financial literacy? No, right? Are we giving them credit counseling? No. Are we teaching them about the values of owning property? No. This system is fixed and it’s fixed against us. And the system is working to keep us poor and oppressed.
DB: We are going to end on an optimistic note. Because the film is about solutions. What makes you optimistic?
HN: The children. The children. Folks who are 20 now, or 18, grew up in this BLM movement, social justice, and equal rights and equity for all since they were 10 or 12. Those young minds have been shaped, even the babies in elementary school, and they are receiving a world in doses that is not hypocritical. These kids know that Columbus conquered a people. They don’t think that he magically discovered empty land. There’s so much realness and compassion in the world right now. And with that being said, I think we as a civilization have hit rock bottom — corporate greed, divisiveness, racism, they’ve hit an all-time low. And I believe the majority of us are dedicated to building the country that we really want, the country we all deserve, being a beacon of light for the rest of the world.
KG: What makes me optimistic are so many people with different ideologies coming together around political innovation. Like the rules of the game for elections. [Two opponents recently shared a stage] and they said, We don’t agree on any politics, we don’t vote for the same people. But we agree on this: that the system isn’t working, and that we need to hold together to change these rules so we can start to solve problems for the American people. And they keep doing their own thing in the existing duopoly, but they say we need to change it because it’s not working for anybody.
DS: Why am I optimistic? Because of the gay marriage example. Gay marriage was thought to have no chance of going anywhere in Washington. Obama was against it, everyone said That’s not going to happen. Then there’s a revolution in the country, state by state by state. It just kind of happened. I think Joe Biden actually had to say to the president, No, this is coming. Do you see that tidal wave? You don’t want to be in front of that.
Missed the event? You can watch it here!