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As this year’s U.S. presidential race kicks into high gear, the left has moved even further left and the right further right. If you could graph the result, it would resemble a barbell—two clusters at the extremes and only a narrow connection between them.
No matter who wins the election in November, the next president of the United States will face a heavyweight challenge: lifting a divided society out of entrenched differences and into a common mission or vision. Don’t expect that to be easy.
Divisiveness in politics is certainly nothing new. As The New Yorker observed: “The strong partisanship of the American electorate has been a strain running through political science for decades … ” Abraham Lincoln is remembered as one of the greatest U.S. presidents of all time, arguably because he found a way to lead through the extreme of “a house divided.” Before his election, he faced numerous rivals who despised him (some he later recruited for his leadership team, like William Seward, his secretary of state). And let us not forget the obvious: Lincoln led during the Civil War.
Now, the U.S. is waging an ideological battle against itself. Building walls in immigration policy, breaking up big banks, weighing the benefits of Obamacare, or any of the politically charged rhetoric of the day are best viewed as symptoms—not the cause of the political divide.
This ideological battle is as old as the Neolithic Revolution some 10,000 years ago when people first learned to cultivate crops and domesticate animals. No more roaming after the herds for food; suddenly there was a new option—staying in one place near a freshwater source, growing crops and storing the excess harvest, and raising animals for meat and breeding. Humans, ever tribal, lived in communities where it literally took a village to realize the shared purpose of having enough food. The bounty of a plentiful harvest produces contentment.
I can recall from my childhood in Kansas neighbors with backyard gardens who shared from their abundance of homegrown tomatoes and zucchini. I was reminded of this while riding in an Uber the other day. The driver, reminiscing about his village back in India, told me about his family’s mango grove. “When we harvested, we had so many, we gave them to everyone.”
But when famine strikes—whether nutritionally, economically, occupationally or otherwise—shared purpose splinters into self-interest. This is more likely to happen now as yellow warning lights flash across the global economy: The International Monetary Fund is projecting only 3.2 percent global economic growth, a notch above the 3 percent technical recession level for worldwide output. The U.S. manufacturing economy remains a concern. With the pace of hiring in the U.S. being closely watched, fears have heightened that economic recession, while not imminent, is looming on the horizon. Add to that a low return on assets, geopolitical turmoil, Britain’s startling vote in June to leave the European Union, terrorism threats and a host of other concerns.
These fears raise the specter of scarcity like a poor harvest. When you perceive your livelihood and lifestyle (i.e., “survival,” as we know it) are threatened, shared interest feels like an altruistic luxury few can afford. Feeling threatened, people look for someone to blame, from illegal immigrants to the super-affluent “1 percent” to terrorist cells in Belgium. Such fears even spread the contagion of survivalist thinking in the workplace of who will stay and who will go in a recession.
It’s no surprise, then, that the angry and disenfranchised flock to support Republican candidate Donald Trump, and that those who feel Wall Street triumphs over Main Street sided with Democratic challenger Bernie Sanders. Both are products of the polarization of America. This polarization has also pulled Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton, more traditionally a centrist, further to the left.
From politics to business, though, a key trait distinguishing the best leaders is the ability to create a common purpose around which individual self-interest can transform into shared interest. Unquestionably, the most compelling commonality of our time—a vision to unite rather than divide the nation—is economic security. Nothing brings that home to Americans more than jobs and wages. With the Great Recession still fresh in people’s memories, any warning lights on economic outlook send people into scarcity mode. People move away from the “gatherers” who cultivate and share, and instead return to hungry-hunter mentality, huddled in their respective caves (left and right).
While divisiveness may generate news headlines and sensational comments make for Tweet-able sound bites, the question remains: How will the next president deal with the reality of the bitter harvest of divisiveness? Without shared alignment, the next leader of the free world will be hard pressed to chart a course forward.