A couple of weeks ago we wrote about the fact that in the search for common ground, it seemed that the search would need to involve getting a better understanding through reading of the views of the “other” or those whose opinions we fail to immediately understand. Along these lines, we have noticed a few trends that have been emerging of late in new books that are being published. The velocity of books trying to make sense of what signals people and pundits might have missed, and which have resulted in overt polarization, seems to be speeding up. Each week there is at least one new book from all sides that looks to explain why we are where we are and why we should not be so surprised that common ground is lacking.
This week’s recommended books are no exception. Three books have recently come out that make the attempt to point to causes and effects that should have been picked up along the way. All three have something in common in that they were written by journalist/commentators that are looking back on what they themselves failed to notice were trends in attitudes. In essence, all three of these books are mea culpas by longtime observers of the political spectrum who missed the signs over the last few decades of just how polarized we were becoming because they had been insulated to a large degree.
In The Great Revolt, Inside the Populist Coalition Reshaping American Politics, syndicated columnist and CNN contributor Salena Zito, and veteran Republican strategist Brad Todd, tackle the question of whether or not the election of Donald Trump was a “fluke” or truly a tectonic shift that will impact our nation and elections for years to come. They traveled through 10 states and interviewed over 300 Trump voters and came away believing that the media did and continue to get it wrong in how his base is characterized. The book is sympathetic to its subject, and according to some reviews perhaps a bit too much, but its premise that the media and politicians missed the depth of the dissatisfaction is well documented. It cautions against using simplistic terms like male or working class to describe those driving this movement.
Standoff: How America Became Ungovernable, by former senior political CNN analyst Bill Schneider, takes a somewhat different approach in his attempt to answer the same questions. His focus is on the last 50 years of elections and the impact of the New America of diversity that became a force in the 1960’s ran up against backlash from the Old America in 2016 could have been expected from the presidential elections during that time span. “Tracing the development of the growing rift over the decades, he examines the forces that have produced America’s present “gridlock and dysfunctional government,” chiefly the separation of powers built into the Constitution. He makes a strong case that voters have increasingly placed values over interests and that public opinion often rules: The “intensity of opinion matters, not just numbers.”
Tailspin: The People and Forces Behind America’s Fifty-Year Fall–and Those Fighting to Reverse It, by journalist and attorney Steven Brill covers roughly the same time period that Schneider’s book does. Regarded as a progressive and liberal, Brill’s book is worth noting for two reasons; the first being that he pinpoints his own profession of lawyers as partly accountable the current dysfunction claiming that there is a:
“new aristocracy of rich knowledge workers, high-achieving, well-educated individuals who have gravitated to law and finance, inventing financial instruments and corporate legal defenses that fed greed but “deadened incentives for the long-term development and growth of the rest of the economy. Brill calls these individuals, who want to hold onto their wealth, the “protected,” as opposed to the rest of society, “the unprotected,” who need government to act for the common good.”
However, he also spends time searching for and highlighting current national and local groups that are actively working to get past the polarization and seek solutions and common ground.
All three of the books can be added to possible reads that might help to explain how we reached a place where discourse is especially difficult but also to help on the road to a better understanding of the reasons behind opinions other than our own.