Having travelled 11,052 miles through 11 western states over eight weeks, I thought I’d reflect on what I’ve heard and the perceptions gained. Reflecting my consultancy career, this is akin to an interim report.
I’m drawing on over 120 conversations with friends, family, and strangers I met out west. No one was hesitant to speak and share their thoughts. Some were pleased to unburden themselves of the tension they held. I positioned myself as neutral, introducing myself as ‘John from Scotland’. The latter was enticing – I often got asked about Scotland, where to visit, or to be told about a connection, clan, trip or family. I listened, not advocated – the only time I changed this tack was to observe that the best thing to come out of Edinburgh is the road to Glasgow. My western route on the map below.
Four inter-related themes emerged.
First, I recall the observation by Shelby Foote, the renowned Civil War historian, that before 1860 it was grammatically said that the United States are; after 1865, it was the United States is. What comes across today is that the United States are. This will not be a surprise to you, nor was it to me. However, the depth and breadth of polarisation and divisiveness is increasing – around politics, economics, and culture. Aligned to this pluralism is the decline in civic society – more of ‘me’ than ‘we’. Rural areas were particularly critical of cities, their drain on resources and dependence on government. This came across in the sloganising of those on the right – while ‘Let’s go Brandon’ was ubiquitous, the nearest I saw to a balancing view was on a road barrier in Idaho.
Therefore, the twain shall never meet. I heard time and again that friendship groups comprise only those of the same view and, if there is someone of a different political, economic, or cultural inclination, then there’s tacit agreement not to speak about any differences. Even this type of relationship was certainly the exception, and I heard more often about someone being cancelled by a long-term friend or, indeed, a family member because of different points of view. A man who had been cancelled by his whole family went through a packet of tissues as he unburdened himself in our conversation. This inability to have a generative conversation with someone who holds different views to yourself saddens me – I had many conversations with many old friends who hold a range of perspectives.
Third, social media was universally cited as a significant contributory factor in how people get their information and form their views. I heard many conspiracy theories – all from the right. A rational person would regard them were all as idiotic, but they are sincerely believed by those who shared them with me. I always asked where I could learn more about these stories, and was pointed to websites, podcasts, and hearsay. I didn’t pass an opinion on what I heard, rather searched for evidence so I could learn more. People get their views formed, or reinforced, by their friendship groups, so the homogeneity of these relationships causes people to keep digging. Social media also reaffirms their views with ‘news’ fed to them. Social media must take a lot of the responsibility for this polarisation, but it continues to build up disciples, as I found out when I saw a steady stream of people posing in front of the Meta/Facebook and Apple signs at their Silicon Valley HQs. It struck me that these were the new religions, especially as I toured Silicon Valley on a Sunday morning.
But there is hope. While I often heard about the tipping point on climate and civil war, the more common view was the expectation that a more positive future lies with kids. Even the doomsters shared a view that they had hopes for the next generations – whether those entering schooling or already in it. This optimism is ironic, given the views I heard from the right that teachers are too liberal and that Covid has shown that kids are being taught deviant views, especially the university-level concept of critical race theory (CRT). When I heard this in conversations, I always asked where I could see the curriculum or where I could learn more about this teaching. The response to my enquiries was always that this is what they’ve heard. Politicians are, therefore, now campaigning to get control of local school boards in order to shape the curriculum away from CRT and similar teachings. It’s also ironic that, while there is a willingness to discuss significant cultural and historic issues that affect others, e.g. the Holocaust, there is less willingness to explore similar issues closer to home, e.g. slavery and Native American genocide.
These are initial reflections from out west. Personally, I’m optimistic, if for no other reason than from my own experience in conversations. Nothing really surprised me, though some of the conspiracy theories were new. People need to try listening, to enquire, not to advocate. Yes, some views came across as loony and pretty uninformed, but they were sincerely held views.
President Biden called out the MAGA right during my travels and, while I initially wondered about the merit of this approach, the non-MAGA actors need to join in the hardball game, instead of playing softball. After all, it was Steve Bannon who observed about the Mueller enquiry into Russian collusion in the 2016 election, ‘Never send a marine to do a hitman’s job’. I’ll see what I hear in the Midwest and upper South on the next leg of the road trip.