Barack Obama’s presidency is an auspicious time to begin mending the red-blue rifts that have afflicted us up to now.
While Obama does a good job of making initial connection with artists and intellectuals on the left, his potential reach doesn’t stop there. As some more doctrinaire liberals have already begun realizing to their chagrin, Obama is by nature more of a bridge builder than a polarizer.
As an uncommonly gifted communicator who genuinely cares about reaching mainstream people, he is about as well positioned to start nudging Americans of all persuasions out of their accustomed polarizing ruts and onto fresh and neutral new ground as it is possible for a political leader to be.
Just as important as the man himself is how he has been received by the American people. In finally electing a black man to the Presidency, the American people have signaled a willingness to move forward from old ways, and to listen to the better angels of their nature.
Americans have also made other noteworthy strides.
Today, more of us than ever before have college degrees, and more still have at least some exposure to college. This cannot help but make intellectuals and artists seem less remote and strange to mainstream Americans, and more part of virtually everyone’s normal, healthy life of the mind.
The arts have also recently gained more respect from local business leaders than perhaps they have ever enjoyed in America. Where small-town Babbittry once greeted anyone who didn’t seem to be a “regular guy” with derisive snickers and worse, today, local civic leaders are much more aware of the economic benefits of having cultural amenities and arts districts, and have adopted a correspondingly more welcoming attitude toward people associated with the arts.
Moreover, personal characteristics that tend to be found more often among individuals who foster the life of the mind than in the general population are now better accepted in their own right. Even within pop culture, studious “nerds” or “brainiacs” are now regular fixtures in various types of mainstream televised and cinematic adventure tales. Meanwhile, gay people now routinely come out while they are still in high school—and many are well accepted among multiple social sectors, including jocks.
What are the biggest changes that mainstream Americans need to make in order to heal the historical rifts?
Certainly, it wouldn't hurt to try to develop a bit more understanding for the history that has led American artists and intellectuals to be as alienated as they are from the mainstream.
More pragmatically, it's important to begin recognizing the dangers that are inherent in cocooning ourselves with information and opinion sources that tell us only things that support what we already believe.
This is, of course, is a major danger for people of all political stripes. While it may have its emotional satisfactions—giving people a tribal sense of belonging and solidarity, as they collectively rail and rise up against all manner of real and imagined indignities heaped upon them by the feared and hated Others—it’s not a very effective way to inform people for participation in a democracy.
We all need to start paying a little more attention to what's said by the other side. We all need to begin recognizing that the need to hear things "straight from the horse's mouth" is never more acute than at the precise point where what we've been told about these Others' utterances sounds the most egregious.