ERICKSON: The United States of contrarianism

People enjoy a clear warm day as the sun sets on the National Mall with with he Washington Monument see in the distance, Tuesday, April 20, 2021, in Washington. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

Contrarianism has run amok in the United States. It is a byproduct of moving into postmodernism. Instead of focusing on what is true, we now all focus on our personal truths with no regard to actual truth. If we believe it is true, then by God in heaven it is true!

Combine that with our increasing divisions as a society, and many people’s truth is now based on being exactly opposite their opposing tribe. Everyone prides themselves on their individual thought when really their thoughts are not individual but based on tribal consent. No one sees it that way, but it is that way. People gauge what they think is true based on what everyone else in their tribe says is true and decide they too have, independently and uniquely, arrived at the exact same conclusion.

Each person, a master of his own destiny, does not even realize he is in a herd. One could reasonably conclude that if buffaloes or lemmings could speak, each one would claim it chose to go in that direction all by itself — the direction in which literally every member of the herd is going. There is, after all, safety in numbers and if everyone else in the herd is headed in a direction, you will probably head that way too.

The United States is now fairly evenly divided, and no one trusts institutions. The media has destroyed its own credibility. The bureaucracy can be bullied by special interests. People are too cynical to trust politicians. So, they trust their friends and the communities that they have increasingly built, online or through political interaction, to look and think just like themselves. The result is now a handful of groups that claim independent thought, expert input and political power at different levels, but remarkably stake out positions exactly opposite the other groups.

The actual independent thinker tends to be increasingly isolated and, as everyone wants to belong to a community, often must make compromises to fit in. But most people do not want to ride in turbulent seas, so they go along to get along within their tribe. That is an important distinction because there are those, on both sides of the political aisle, who rock the boat. If your tribe is committed to rocking the boat, calm seas are your turbulence.

Unfortunately for the country, this has left us largely without good ideas and sound public policy. Each tribe wishes to be contrary to the other tribe. Not too long ago, if one of America’s political tribes staked out position X, the other tribe most assuredly would stake out X plus 1 or Y. In other words, they would call for something more fully than the other side or different from the other side, claiming their different way was a better way.

Now, each side has chosen to be an opposite. Instead of pushing Y to challenge X, the opposing tribe pushes minus X, the exact opposite. One side has embraced vaccines, so the other side refuses to get them. When former President Donald Trump was in office, Democrats cast doubt and aspersions on the vaccine and Operation Warp Speed. As soon as President Joe Biden was elected, Trump supporters became the loudest skeptics of the vaccine.

As Republicans showed sound science that children are not the spreaders of the coronavirus and should be able to go to school without masks, Democrats rushed to do the exact opposite and insist on masks for children, even outdoors. What one side advocates, the other side must repudiate. There can be no nuance and damn the person who charts a middle or alternate path.

This will not last. X plus minus X equals X minus X, which equals zero. Both sides cancel each other out. It is basic math. The side that ultimately wins is going to be the side that charts a different path, not a contrary path. We need some alternatives now. Both sides seem to be out of any ideas except: Whatever one side is for, the other is against. That provides no path forward for any of us.