Why is America so Divided?
I often get asked what I do outside of work and why I do what I do. That is a tough question to answer succinctly, because there are lots of factors that go into how my wife Ashley and I allocate what resources are available to us to help accomplish the things that we think are important.
So without answering that question in the context of any specific organization, I thought it would be helpful to take a step back and explain what I perceive to be some of the major challenges facing our society today to help frame where we think we can be helpful.
The Roots of Dysfunction
Back in 2012, I became a political “Independent”. I wrote a blog highlighting some of the frustrations that led up to this that you can read about here. To briefly summarize, I was fed up with partisan politics and I thought it incredibly odd that most Americans that I knew, from either the Republican party or on the Democratic side, anecdotally seemed to mostly agree on most issues. I live in Los Angeles, which is mostly a “blue” city, but I grew up in a suburb of LA called Thousand Oaks, which leaned “red” towards the Republican party.
Thus, I was constantly exposed to these differing perspectives on the various issues and one of my conclusions was that all of these people are well-intentioned people who wanted a better future for America. As an example, if the issue being discussed was education, everyone agreed that we needed a better public education system to help America’s kids have opportunity. Where they often differed, was in the “how” we should achieve that goal. At the risk of over-generalizing a nuanced issue, the Democrats tended to want more money allocated to public schools and to teachers, whereas the Republicans tended to want schools to be more effective. The Democrat perspective often centered around “fairness”, relating to equal access and believed that with more resources, the system would improve. Both agreed that the public school system was not working as effectively as it needs to. The Republican perspective questioned whether the “one-size fits all” approach of public schools would ever be able to meet the diverse educational needs of kids and thus supported charter schools as an alternative solution, whereby public dollars can be allocated to schools run more autonomously from central district control, with the goal improving effectiveness through entrepreneurship.
These groups harbored different perspectives, but their goals were aligned; IE, both wanted students to have better outcomes and be better prepared for their adult life to have more opportunities. I talked about the importance of taking a step back and evaluating what your goals are before engaging in problem solving in another previous blog titled the importance of goal alignment. As the blog details, this process is critical to achieve progress, in particular when lots of people need to be involved and the solution is complex; like governing humans effectively in a democracy.
Now, another assumption (that I used to take for granted and no longer do) is that we as humans in a democracy understand that other people will not always agree with us, and that that is OK! In the past couple years in America, we have seen a big rise in extremism where groups on the political polar extremes have been getting more and more share of voice and more and more angry. In order to ever make any real progress towards any type of solution, we need to stop and ask ourselves: why has this been happening?
While there are lots of factors that can impact each individual, one macro reason is that people are incredibly angry that the government hasn’t been working effectively to solve the problems that they care about don’t have confidence that this will improve since it has in fact, gotten even worse over time.
Why has the government been so ineffective?
One example to explain why the government has been ineffective and why people are angry can be found in a 2014 study by Princeton and Northwestern Universities, which looked at 1779 policy issues in the early 2000’s in the US to try to understand what drove American public policy. Their conclusion? The perspective of the average American had a statistically significant, near ZERO impact on our public policy. Meaning, it literally does not matter what you think or how many letters you write your local member of congress; it won’t change their behavior, no matter what they tell you. They will still spend roughly 70% of their time fundraising and focusing their efforts on donors, not voters. This video from Represent.US articulates this well. People intuitively understand this and they are RIGHTLY angry.
By contrast, if you have money to support politicians in their election process, you can effectively buy political influence. How does this work? The unfortunate reality is that many policies get made whereby a group that has a particular interest forms what is often refereed to as a “special interest group” to advocate for policies to benefit their particular interests. This can include groups like a federal lobbying body for the pharmaceutical industry, a union in a particular state and sector like the California Teachers Association, a single issue group focused on specific policy initiatives like the NRA, or a wealthy person or group that allocates funds to whatever issues, ideology or self-interested business interest that they want, such as George Soros on the left or the Koch Brothers on the right. Now that my wife and I have built successful companies from scratch, we have assets for the first time and now are experiencing this dynamic first hand. It has been an unsettling phenomenon to experience.
Now, to be fair, there are good arguments for why allowing Americans to self-organize into aligned special interest groups is a great thing. I’m not here to dispute this fundamental part of our democracy. I have personally donated to multiple democracy reform initiatives and even to a Super-Pac to try to address these issue (which I do find quite ironic). What I will vigorously dispute is that allowing these groups to spend an unlimited amount of money (or even just a significant amount, pre-Citizen’s United) on behalf of political candidates, allowing these groups to write legislation directly to be voted on by Congress and then promising cushy jobs with big salaries to these same politicians once they leave office, creates a terrible incentive structure that causes politicians to focus on what these groups want, rather than what the voting public wants. This happens every day in America, which means, in the United State of America, corruption is essentially LEGAL!
So how do we fix this? First step is doing this: make corruption ILLEGAL in America. Watch this video for some details. In this last election cycle, in 2018, Represent.US which is a group that I am proud to sit on the board of, not only helped get Ranked Choice Voting passed in Maine, but we passed 15 out of 16 anti-corruption measures that we were backing. 96% of Americans agree that we need to fix corruption in our country, so this doesn’t matter if you are a Democrat, a Republican, or whatever beliefs you harbor, if you agree that this legislative dynamic is absurd and want to do something about it, join us at Represent.US and help us fight corruption.
But this isn’t the whole story, as these groups don’t undermine the way the American government works on their own. Another reason people are angry is that wealth inequality is getting worse and our government seems incapable (or unwilling) to sufficiently acknowledge this and drive towards viable solutions. America is supposed to be the land of opportunity, right? Look at this chart:
This means that the American dream, whereby people come to this country to have the opportunity to make a better life for themselves is becoming harder and harder for people who don’t start at the top. This problem won’t solve itself and is very complex in terms of all the factors that drive it. I’ll list a handful here: globalization, disruptive innovation, the flawed philosophy of maximizing shareholder value (as opposed to the positive virtues of business where by we are creating shared value), crony capitalism, short termism in capital markets, etc. Essentially, as the economic pie continues to grow, the distribution of the gains aren’t being distributed effectively enough to the areas and people that need the support. Where is the German-like job training? Why do so many public school teachers need to buy their own supplies? When you invest in people and create opportunity for them, not only is it an economic no-brainer that grows the pie, it is hard to argue that it isn’t the morally right thing to do. My business partner Brandon Beck talked about how this philosophy around people manifests in creative industries in his DICE Keynote back in 2015 and it is well worth the watch. Similarly, my experience of sitting on the board of CityYearLA has taught me that one of the ways that the prison industry forecasts future demand is 3rd grade test score in public schools - or more specifically, if you aren’t reading at a your grade level by the end of third grade, you are 4x less likely to graduate high school. Additionally, high school drop outs are 63x more likely to be incarcerated than college grads, and if you graduate from high school, it adds one million to your lifetime earnings. So instead of being more likely to go to prison and arguably being a “net drain” on the economy (since it costs $81,000 to house each inmate in California), there would be far more people working productively to grow the pie and have a better life if we helped more people graduate high school and be prepared to take advantage of the massive skilled labor shortage that exists. This should be attainable for the wealthiest country on Earth.
All of this again reinforces that we have a capital allocation problem of both human and financial. Who’s job is it to allocate resources effectively? That is one of the primary roles of the government; create policy to help shape where capital flows and where resources are allocated, in collaboration with its citizens, corporations and NGO’s.
Many philanthropists attempt to fill this void by allocating a huge percentage of their wealth and time to the public good. This is a good thing and philanthropy should be celebrated. But this isn’t enough. As an example. the Billionaires Pledge, whereby 14 of the world’s wealthiest people agreed to allocate roughly $400b of personal wealth to philanthropic causes is roughly what the US government spends in just 6 months on K-12 education. David Crane, a successful entrepreneur turned Stanford Public Policy professor, coined the phrase “political philanthropy” and argues that these wealthy elites should allocate some of their philanthropic dollars to fixing our political system to improve the government’s ability to make better policy and more effectively allocate resources. I completely buy this argument, as Ashley and I (and presumably every philanthropist) look to create “leverage” in our efforts; ie, we want to maximize the impact of our limited resources to do as much good as possible.
So, if you buy the argument that many people want to allocate their dollars to drive better outcomes, through philanthropy or through political giving, then we need to look more closely at the existing political system. I started my journey of really trying to understand the system around 2014 and my conclusion is that giving money “within” this existing system reinforces the negative outcomes that we are seeing and actually doesn’t move the needle much at all (there are some notable exceptions to this rule, such as Govern for California). Which naturally brings us into the discussion of party politics in America.
The Role of Political Parties & Structural Dynamics
Both major political parties in the United States play a meaningful role in contributing to the governmental dysfunction that we see today.
What is the goal of a political party? In a nutshell, they are a group of people with similar political goals and opinions. The purpose of the political party is to get candidates elected to public office so that these candidates can enact laws to drive the agenda that the party members generally support. Now, political parties aren’t inherently bad. In fact, for a good part of the 20th century, they actually were fairly reasonable and it was common to reach across the aisle in congress to work with “the other side” that theoretically represented a different population of Americans to collaborate to solve problems. Lots of great progress was made in the 20th century when you step back and reflect on it. Here is a summary from the Brookings Institute about what they ranked as the most significant accomplishments of the last 50 years, their top ten being:
Rebuilding Europe after WWII
Expanding the Right to Vote
Promoting Equal Access to Public Accommodations
Reducing Workplace Discrimination
Ensuring Safe Food and Drinking Water
Strengthening the Nation’s Highway System
Increasing Older American’s Access to Healthcare
Reducing the Federal Budget
Promoting Financial Security in Retirement
Click the link above if you want to learn more about the other accomplishments and read about their methodology, but my point is that many major issues of yesterday made significant progress. We can debate whether it is sufficient progress (I think we all agree there is a lot more to do), but as the great Martin Luther King Jr. once said, "All progress is precarious, and the solution of one problem brings us face to face with another problem." So “progress” on the major issues of the day is still a good thing in my view.
Which brings us to today. The US congress of today is at its most dysfunctional state in at least the last ~80 years. How do we know?
The amount of laws being written and policies enacted has declined dramatically. Some who favor small government may ague this is a good thing, but given the exponentially increasing complexity driven by the technology and demographic changes of 21st century, one view is that the government is falling farther and farther behind delivering on the needs of its population.
America's trust in government is near a historical low of ~20%.
3. The amount of bipartisan policy has dramatically shrunk, meaning one “side” is pushing their policy goals down the throats of the “other side” without compromise based on who controls congress. Watch this great video from Business Insider that visualizes this well. This dynamic means that theoretically, each law that gets passed has less legitimacy and/or “buy in” from the population it is meant to govern. This dynamic leads to resentment, frustration, etc. Some amount of this is inevitable in a diverse democracy, because it is literally impossible for everyone to agree on everything, but I think we can all agree that we can do better.
Why are there fewer and fewer politicians who are willing to “reach across the aisle” to try to solve problems for the American people? Several reasons:
Both the Republicans and Democrats have systematically been increasing the barriers to political competition by changing the election process rules when they are in power to favor anything that will give them an advantage. One well-known technique is called Gerrymandering, which is drawing the voting “district lines” in ways that will favor the party. This leads to a situation, where rather than voters picking their politicians, politicians are picking their voters. As Arnold Schwarzenegger often highlights, this is absurd.
2. Another technique is to enact closed primaries, meaning that only members of a particular political party can vote in that primary election. This gives the national political party huge power in aligning their party members behind their national agenda. Why? If you do things that the party doesn’t want, such as breaking rank to reach across the aisle to reach compromise and solve a problem with “the other side”, the party bosses can threaten to “primary you” and run a politician who is more willing to do their bidding against you in the next election. And because a tiny population of voters who tend to be party purists participate in closed primaries, the more extreme candidates tend to win in primary elections in both Democrat vs. Democrat races and Republican vs. Republican races. This has helped cause the recent phenomenon of the “incredible shrinking swing seat” that you can see below. Meaning, less “moderates” who are willing to collaborate with the “other side”. This directly translates into less getting done, fewer problems being addressed, less civil discussion and less unity in the country.
3. Another reason is that our first past the post voting system means that the candidate who wins just needs a plurality of votes to win, not a majority of votes to win. Why do we accept a voting system that allows a person with less than 50% of the vote to win an election? Ranked choice voting is a far better option for our democracy for many reasons. To just name a handful: 1) it significantly increases political competition by eliminating the “spoiler effect” from candidates outside of the two major parties (and as we all know, competition is good for the consumer). 2) It helps align the incentives of politicians with that of the voters because the candidate actually has to be liked by more of the electorate since the candidates need a majority to win. This means RCV are not only more representative of the population, the races tend to be more positive with less mudslinging as politicians can’t simply rely on catering to a tiny portion of their electorate who hate the other side in a closed primary to get them into office.
4. Both political parties justify these anti-competitive actions of entrenching their advantage by claiming that the other side is worse and in a nutshell, the ends justify the means, because their views “are more right”. This is an incredibly dangerous slippery slope and is one of the reasons >40% of Americans now identify themselves as independent instead of being affiliated with a party. You don’t have to look far into history to figure out that humans tend to not like to be defined by a singular label.
5. Most of my friends in Los Angeles are Democrats and they rightly point out huge concerns with Trump. The key thing that I try to reinforce is that Trump is a SYMPTOM of these structural problems and the dysfunction that we have seen (as is Bernie if you are on the right), he is not the cause. These issues have been building long before Trump even ran for office. Also, it is worth remembering that Trump ran on a “drain the swamp” style platform and had an “anti-elite” message and positioned himself as a successful and wealthy business person who stands with the average American (as does Bernie). Underrepresented populations want to be represented and they want to have the swamp drained (as should we all). Even when Trump is no longer in office, which thankfully is inevitable in America (unless congress and the states decide to amend the constitution to eliminate Presidential term limits!), all of these issues that caused this chaos will still be left unaddressed. Therefore, we must work on resolving these structural issues while we also do whatever work we think is important from an issue perspective. We all need to separate the two in our minds and recognize that they are complimentary paths. We can simultaneously work on a more inclusive and fair process that leads to better democratic representation, while also pushing whatever policy or ideological goals you have that you may think are optimal for society.
That’s a lot to digest, but make sense so far? These factors are knowable. Since they are knowable, it means we can identify them and we start working together to systematically improve our democracy. Represent.US and Unite: America (and for us Californian’s, Govern For California) are some of the groups that in my research that are best positioned to help move the needle for our country around these issues and I am actively involved with all of them. Why did I get involved? I could write a whole entry on this, but in a nutshell it is because I was sick of complaining about how broken things are and made a conscious choice to educate myself and get involved. To be slightly more specific, my wife Ashley Merrill, the Founder & CEO of Lunya, inspired me with her approach of “be the change you want to see in the world” arguing that if you truly care about something, then you’ll get involved and do something about it (other than just rant on social media or at dinner parties). That is the beauty of a democracy. It gets healthier, the more we all understand it and participate in it.
The Role of the Media
Which brings us to the media. This is another factor that contributes to the dysfunction we see in American society and public discourse today.
Since one theme of this post is around incentive structures, let’s start with the incentive structure of the modern news media landscape. To understand this, we need to adopt a business lens and look at the business models of the news media, meaning radio stations, TV channels and shows, newspapers, magazines, etc. The news media relies on advertising revenue and sponsorships to fund their operations and generate profits. Advertising revenue is derived from third party companies who are willing to pay a media company to put their brand or advertisement in a place where as many people as possible will see the advertisement and hopefully buy a product or have a slightly more favorable brand impression because they were exposed to the message that the advertiser wanted you to see.
Now, there isn’t anything inherently wrong with an ad based model. The problem comes further down the chain. As news media sites have proliferated due to technological changes such as the rise of internet and as consumption habits have changed, say from physical newspapers to your phone, or from network TV channels such as ABC, NBC and CBS to specialized 24 hour stations like CNN and Fox News, we have what we can refer to as the rise of the long tail. This means that the American audience used to be more concentrated, where most people watched a few channels and/or read a few national newspapers. When the news in the country functioned like this, it was “the golden age of journalism”, where great journalists like Walter Cronkite, Tom Brokaw, Dan Rather and Peter Jennings were the trusted faces in news and reliably attempted to represent the news through a lens of “objective journalism” where they tried to report “the facts” and really validate things before publishing them. Were there issues with this “golden age”? Of course. First of all, these anchors were all men until pioneers like Diane Sawyer, Susan Stamberg and Helen Thomas broke through in their respective areas. Second, the news wasn’t as timely as CNN and the 24 hour news cycle had yet to be pioneered, and because of the relative lack of different channels and companies, many smaller stories were either constrained to local papers, small industry journals or not covered at all.
However, fast forward to today and we have a veritable multitude of media organizations that are competing for the attention of the reader or viewer. One strategy that became prevalent as many of these entrepreneurial organizations sprang up was to cater to a niche audience. This meant understanding what the pre-existing views of that audience are and then creating content that would resonate with just that audience. This in a nutshell, reinforces the cognitive bias known as confirmation bias; whereby we as humans search for, interpret, favor, and recall information in a way that confirms one's preexisting beliefs or hypotheses. Even the best, most professional news organizations get facts wrong from time to time, but at least they typically try to acknowledge mistakes or issue retractions.
Couple this with the rise of social media, and the well documented phenomenon of red feed blue feed and we now have self-reinforcing media bubbles where humans are constantly bombarded with information that is self-reinforcing of one’s pre-existing viewpoints.
Additionally, the major news organizations that still value journalistic integrity faced an uphill battle against psuedo-news organizations that have much lower standards of reporting and journalistic integrity and in the worst cases, create completely fake news or engage in calculated bullying known as “takedown pieces” that create controversy to gain clicks.
The way that this works is an initial article and headline sets the framing of a story, various other “news” sources write articles linking to the initial report that essentially simply say “some other publication reported X” and repeat the same story. There is no follow up, no interviews, no validating of facts, no checking for “the other side of the story”, they just repeat what has been said already which reinforces the initial positioning of the first headline. Next thing you know, that story gets repeated rapidly and we all know by now that fake news travels faster than real news, and controversy gets clicks because we are all eager for news that validates our own biased perspectives and those of our friends. These businesses are literally built on spreading these types of stories that sound plausible and are just skating the lines of defamation laws, where the writer and editorial team are very careful to not knowingly publish something that they can confirm isn’t true, but usually very intentionally are not telling the whole story at best, and at worst, believe to be fake but can hide behind the claim that their “sources” gave them the information and they weren’t aware that it wasn’t true. Oftentimes though, damage can be already done, lives can be damaged or destroyed and careers ruined. This phenomenon is why Elon Musk wants to create a website that rates the news media on how well they tell the whole truth. That is a noble goal, but difficult problem to solve.
One doesn’t need a PhD in statistics to imagine the impact that this has on populations of people over time, but here is one unfortunate outcome. In 1960, only ~4% of Democrats and ~5% of Republicans said yes to the question that they would feel displeased if your child married outside of your political party, whereas after years of aggressive negative political campaigns, the lack of unifying leadership in the political sphere, the fragmentation of the media and the rise of social media, in 2014 now roughly 35% of Democrats and ~45% of Republicans answered yes!
Things have gotten so bitter and partisan that by 2014, ~27% of Democrats and ~36% of Republicans actually viewed the other party as being a “threat to the nation’s well-being”, and I’m sure the stats would be even worse now in 2019.
As Greg Orman notably identified, this shows that political affiliation has unfortunately become a new form of prejudice. Haven’t we all learned by now that prejudice, such as judging someone by a label, such as Democrat or Republican (or gamer), is a very bad thing to do? Why do we all do this so frequently when we “know better”?
Well, one reason is that humans are tribal and our brains like to sort ourselves into “teams” of all sorts. We have national identities, corporate identities, job titles, alma maters, cities we are from, sports teams we like, gender identities, racial identities, you name it, humans find ways to sort ourselves into groups. These group identities that we affiliate with often come with pre-disposed notions: IE, if I like the Boston Red Sox in baseball, I’m not supposed to like the NY Yankees. This wiring in our brains leads to the unsophisticated beliefs that leads to humans thinking other humans are one-dimensional and can be labeled by ANY prejudicial label, be it race, age, gender, political affiliation, etc.
We’ve all experienced when someone else labels us in a way we think is unfair, so why do we ever do the same thing in return? Isn’t it it time we all stop pointing the finger at others and start to deeply reflect on our own behavior? After all, culture is simply a set of norms found in human societies. If you want to positively impact any culture that you are a part of, start with yourself. Which begs the question, so what do we do about all of this?
Hopefully this information will help us all take a moment to reflect on our own behavior, how much true diversity we experience and what is influencing our thoughts, attitudes and behaviors towards others. Why does this slippery slope matter? Because as the great Mahatma Gandhi said:
“Your beliefs become your thoughts,
Your thoughts become your words,
Your words become your actions,
Your actions become your habits,
Your habits become your values
Your values become your destiny.”
In other words, our beliefs matter. These beliefs need to be challenged through healthy civil debate and through rigorous self-examination and through teaching people how to engage in metacognition, or “thinking about thinking”. In a free society, we have a high burden on our educational system and on other critical institutions, such as the family unit, religious groups, and I would argue, corporations, to help reinforce healthy beliefs and teach people about personal best practices that will build a just and more-inclusive society. Two such organizations that are attempting to build a curriculum to help institutions learn how to be truly inclusive are OpenMind, which is building a curriculum and platform for companies to foster mutual understanding across differences, and the Heterodox Academy, which is an organization of thousands of college professors who are trying to reinforce diversity of thought and civil discourse in college campuses so students learn how to engage with people whom they disagree with and get exposed to dangerous historical ideologies, so we hopefully avoid repeating mistakes from the past.
And what can be done about the news industry and social media? Well, this is a very complex problem that I honestly don’t have great solutions for and I would welcome anyone’s ideas about how to chip away at it. That being said, I’ll offer some thoughts:
Social media platforms need to take more responsibility for the behavior on their platforms and the content that is shared on their services. Just like how Riot has always tried to cultivate sportsmanship within our community (which is a very hard problem, because we’re humans) there are creative solutions out there that need to be explored. Facebook and Twitter have started to make more progress on cracking down on the most egregious behavior and these are great first steps, but more can be done.
Tweak the law to increase the burden of truth about what you publish or print online, in particular about people under the age of 18. The United Kingdom has a legal standard with a higher burden of truth on media companies, which dramatically reduces the amount of takedown pieces and fake news that is published. The downside here is that of course this then makes it more difficult for important stories to expose wrongful deeds and thus favors the wealthy, powerful and the status quo. This legal issue is worth studying to see if there are ways to optimize for the 21st century.
Editorial boards and leaders of news organizations need to set a high internal bar for integrity and should explore developing internal scoring metrics for writers around bias and factual reporting. Also, educate yourself as to where your news source sits on the ideological spectrum. NPR regularly scores as the most unbiased major news organization and if you care about this type of thing, become a reader of NPR and tell your friends.
Continue to educate the population about the dangers of believing what we read, even from “the news”. As Mark Twain famously stated, “If you don't read the newspaper, you are uninformed. If you do read the newspaper, you are misinformed.” If we all take what we hear with a bit more of a grain of salt (this is easier said than done, I know!), our democracy will actually improve.
Hopefully this helps contextualize what I perceive to be a bunch of meaningful problems with “our system”. This perspective helps shapes what philanthropic organizations I am involved with, helps inform the type of social impact companies I look for and any political activities that I am engaged in. There is a lot more detail I could go into about why Ashley and I support each organization, such as how we like to focus on disruptive innovations, but the high level summary is that Ashley and I fundamentally believe in the importance of creating a just and equitable society where ALL people have the opportunity to pursue life, liberty and happiness. Our nation’s diversity IS one of our key strengths, so fly your flag and be yourself and try not to hate on people that you think are different than you!
If you think someone is a bad person, you may be right, but that is what the law is for and why due process is a thing. It is not illegal to be a jerk, even though it is clearly unfortunate. Let’s just all hope that our political parties don’t succeed at continuing to politicize the judiciary, as that is one of the most critical institutions to keep this whole American experiment thing going.
Maybe my vision for what I think a just and equitable society looks like is different from yours. From my perspective, that’s OK! Let’s engage in a respectful and civil discussion where I can learn from your perspective, experience and knowledge, and you can learn from mine. Maybe together with our different ideas and perspectives we can identify even better solutions.
Isn’t that what a civil society and democracy should be all about?
Marc “Tryndamere” Merrill