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Why We’re So Politically Divided and How We Can Fix It

I'm just sayin'

The recent gun control debate is one clear example of how divided we are as a population, but we see these examples all the time, on immigration, the environment, taxes, abortion, welfare … well, you’ve seen it. You know.

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Why are we so split on these issues? Why are the people who think different things than you do so profoundly wrong and so stubborn and perverse in sticking with their wrongness? Will your side ever win?

While I’m pretty sure there’s no one thing that will explain all political differences, I think there is one single, crucial issue that defines the political divide in America. It’s the issue of who needs to be involved to get things done. Here’s what I mean:


Conservative politics is based on the idea that you have to do things yourself. “Yourself” here means you, the people who are closely connected with you, and if you’re a Christian, God. After all, if God is on your side, then he’s part of the group you can trust absolutely, but you also need to do the things the way you think God would want them done. Regardless, whoever is in your group is who you need to look out for; it’s not safe to trust outside groups.

This makes it clear what to believe on a number of issues:

More taxes to support more government services, or lower taxes and fewer services? Obviously you can’t trust the government to do things for you, because you have to do things yourself. Therefore, the more money you hang onto and the less the government gets to use, the better.

Protect the environment, or allow more access to natural resources? Well, if people are going to rely on themselves, they can’t be restricted from accessing the resources they need to do that. Further, protecting the environment usually means more taxes, which we’ve already established are not what’s needed.

More gun control or more gun freedom? Well, you can’t rely on other people to protect you locally, so the more you and yours have access to guns, the safer you’re going to feel.

And so on. It gets tricky when looking at some larger issues, like military spending, because then “yourself” becomes “your country,” so of course more military power, because you can’t trust the other countries.


Liberal politics is based on the idea that we have to do things together. If we all are only looking out for ourselves, the thinking goes, then we’ll always be at odds with each other, and things will be chaotic and unsafe. If we work together, on the other hand, we’ll be able to do more, and almost everyone will be much better off.

This also makes it clear what to believe on a number of issues:

More taxes to support more government services, or lower taxes and fewer services? If we’re going to do things together, then we need constructs like governments to get the work done, so more taxes are acceptable within limits if that means the government is doing more for people. If we’re paying more for taxes, for instance, but everyone gets much better health care, then everyone’s better off.

Protect the environment, or allow more access to natural resources? Even though some people may benefit from accessing more natural resources, we all lose out when the environment is degraded, so clearly we need to protect it for the common good.

More gun control or more gun freedom? People with guns are more dangerous to everyone than people without guns, so fewer guns is the way to go.

I know that’s all oversimplified, but I believe the point still stands. Conservatives feel safer when it’s left up to individuals to control things. Liberals feel safer when people are working together for the common good.

The Tug of War

This puts most political questions on a continuum, from “we all do it together” on one side to “we each take care of it ourselves” on the other. Few of us adopt an absolute extreme, since leaving everything to everyone else (not working for our own income, not making our own decisions about how we live, etc.) doesn’t work any better than trying to do everything (raising your own grain, inventing your own Internet, etc.) ourselves.

So the more you accept one idea, the more the other idea is going to seem not only unappealing, but even insidious. If you don’t feel safe without a gun of your own, attempts to control who can have guns are going to feel like somebody is trying to rip away one of the few protections you have, an act that’s threatening at the same time it makes it harder to defend yourself from threats. If you feel like the climate is degrading massively and we all need to adopt some agreements about how to act differently in order to turn things around, then any freeing up of resources that can damage the climate further seems irresponsible and malign.

Will Things Change?

The line between these two opposing ideas will move, so that the country as a whole can become more liberal or more conservative. Additionally, some events can make people feel even less safe, causing them to stand even more firmly on their point of view (do for yourself or do it together), resulting in entrenching, incivility, and deadlock. Fear is what causes entrenchment, and some political figures, especially on larger political stages, try to use this by stoking the fires of fear in their base, which causes their base to become more rigid and intense.

But because we will always have to strike a balance between the two, the line won’t disappear. The two things that can change are where the line is–what the average political stances in the nation are–and how afraid or confident people feel about things.

So How Do We Fix It?

If by “fix it” you mean “advance my side’s agenda,” then improvement comes from reaching out, from sharing information and ideas and education, helping people to see the benefits in what you’re proposing and to understand it better. For instance, the Civil Rights Movement and the #metoo movement both advanced causes by making them more visible and sharing their vision and understanding of the world. The people who took part in these movements challenged assumptions and shared ideas in a way that other people could understand and, in many cases, get behind.

Or you can advance great political figures who understand how to present and structure your priorities so that more people are interested in and attracted to them.

But if you mean “fix it” in terms of narrowing the gap, creating more civility and bipartisanship and effective governance, then the solution is for people to feel heard, understood, and supported. That’s it: creating trust is the magic ingredient. If someone is talking about how we need to arm teachers so that schools won’t be sitting ducks, and if you don’t agree with that, then trying to tell them how wrong they are and how sick that idea is will reinforce their sense that you don’t honor or support individual agency. They’ll feel attacked (because you’ll be attacking them), and they’ll most likely dig in.

Similarly, if someone is saying that we need to impose a new tax on fossil fuels, and if you don’t agree with that, then telling them how they’re stealing your money to bloat government even more, because they’re a control freak who wants everything their way, it will not encourage them to switch to your point of view.

If on the other hand, in either situation, you ask them more about how they envision the idea working, how they would work out some of the difficulties (without characterizing the difficulties as reasons why they are wrong), and why that’s important to them, you’ll understand them better, and they’ll know you understand them better, and that you respect them at least enough to take their opinions seriously. In no part of that do you try to promote your point of view or negate theirs: all you’re doing is establishing trust, and you can’t simultaneously establish trust and try to conquer. Then, it’s at least more likely that the other person will be willing and interested to hear what you have to say, and even to think about what you’ve said. It’s not guaranteed by any means, but it’s much more likely. Now we have civility and understanding, and no one has had to give up their beliefs. We’re in a better situation to sort things out.

I’d like to underscore a crucial part of this: if you want to use this approach, you have to open yourself up first. You probably will need to sit through hearing some things you disagree with massively and don’t want to hear, delivered in a style you don’t like by a person you may not trust. That’s hard, but it’s also the only reason people don’t do this a lot more. To the extent that you can suck it up and just listen to the other person as a human being, conveying respect and attention, you can accomplish something few people these days accomplish: bridging the conservative-liberal gap.


Things You Will Probably Not Say on Your Deathbed

I'm just sayin'

Abe Lincoln on his deathbed

  • Man, I wish I’d spent more time watching TV
  • I now regret not eating more of those doughnuts people kept bringing in at work
  • All that time I wasted with my family and friends! Why didn’t I work constantly and become wealthy but unable to enjoy any of my income?
  • Those solar panels were pointless. Now that I really think about it, I don’t care whether climate change disasters would have been a lot worse over the last few decades if people like me hadn’t done something about it.
  • Good thing I took all those Facebook quizzes!
  • At least I got to argue with everyone who ever annoyed me.
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Top 12 Reasons Bernie Sanders Can’t Possibly Be Elected President or Even Win the Democratic Primary Because for the Love of Pete, Didn’t We Already Agree It Was Going to Be Hillary?

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I hope folks will forgive me for making a post related to the presidential race. I’m not usually inclined to post about political matters, but lately I’ve been agog at how desperate the press seems to be to try to prove that Bernie Sanders can’t possibly win anything. I don’t say Bernie will win the presidential election, or even the primary, but for some reason he’s not yet being treated as a credible candidate, and that’s ridiculous. And speaking of ridiculous: here are the top 12 reasons he can’t possibly be elected.




  1. Voters don’t think enough other voters will vote for him, so he won’t win, even if voters prefer him. That makes sense, right?
  1. He’s just a left-wing Donald Trump (you know, because he speaks his mind and has messy hair), and Donald Trump isn’t going to win. Ergo, Bernie won’t win either, QED.
  1. Bernie doesn’t have much Latino support, and with only 15 months left before the election, there’s no time for that to change.
  1. Hillary already has the nomination locked in by winning over all the big corporate and private contributors–you know, the people whom Bernie is specifically trying to get out of government. All Bernie has is hundreds of thousands of average Americans. Since when do they count?
  1. He’s not going to appeal to black Americans, because black Americans would never vote for the only candidate who even has a racial justice platform. So he marched for civil rights with Martin Luther King, so what? Everybody’s done that!
  1. The press all says Hillary is going to win, and they’re the ones who matter. The only people Bernie has behind him are voters, and everyone knows they don’t make a difference in presidential races.
  1. Everybody seems to like and respect him, even people who disagree with him. What kind of reputation is that for a president?
  1. Sure he gets massive turnout at his events, but that doesn’t mean people are actually going to vote for him! I mean, come on: apples and oranges.
  1. The idea of putting a heavier financial burden on people who can actually afford it to help out people who can’t make ends meet is repugnant, mean-spirited, and un-American.
  1. Who said it was OK for him to run, did you think about that? Nobody, that’s who.
  1. He’s too radical to appeal to a broad constituency. All the progressive Democrats who like him are too radical, too. Also the centrist Democrats. And I guess the independents. And the … Republicans …
  1. He’s too honest: people don’t trust that in a politician.
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Does Chocolate Really Contain Caffeine, or Are People Just Confusing It with Theobromine?

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There’s an assertion circulating on the Web that caffeine content in chocolate is an urban legend based on misunderstanding of a related compound, theobromine. From what information I’ve been able to turn up, it appears this assertion is false: that is, the urban legend is that chocolate doesn’t contain caffeine.

The first significant information I found on this is on the Hershey Company’s site, which has a page entitled “Caffeine and Theobromine“. On this page they discuss the two separately and state that “For example, a 1.55 ounce (43g) HERSHEY’S milk chocolate bar contains about 9 mg of caffeine.” They later say “a 1.55 ounce (43g) HERSHEY’S milk chocolate bar contains about 64mg of theobromine.” It does not seem possible that they could be confusing the two in this situation.

This next page also gives specific numbers for both caffeine and theobromine content of chocolate, though I don’t know how reliable the source is:

Getting into slightly more authoritative stuff, here’s a Russian article through Medline called “Biologically active substances in grated cocoa and cocoa butter” that discusses both caffeine and theobromine content in chocolate, separately: .

Here’s another article, this one from The Journal of Chromatographic Science, also speaks of both caffeine and theobromine content in chocolate:

Why does all this matter? Depending on who you are, it may not. After all, chocolate doesn’t contain a lot of caffeine. That Hershey’s bar mentioned above only has about 1/10 the amount of caffeine found in a cup of coffee, though dark chocolate has more. However, if you’re like me and have bad physiological reactions to caffeine (itching, headaches, etc.) under some circumstances, it’s pretty important to understand that chocolate–all chocolate–is going to have that effect.

On a related note, please remember too that decaffeinated coffee and tea aren’t devoid of caffeine, either–they both just have a lot less than their caffeinated counterparts.

All of the above is just based on online research, of course: I’m not a nutritionist, researcher, or medical professional.

Image courtesy of Pixabay

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Counterfictionals: The Witch of the West

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Apropos of nothing, here’s a cartoon …

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If It’s Not Fun, Why Do It? A Few Pointed Answers

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Don’t get me wrong: Ben & Jerry’s ice cream is delicious–nobody’s saying it isn’t. It’s also ridiculously unhealthy and will kill you if you eat enough of it, but I’m sure that when Mssrs. Cohen and Greenfield started their ice cream shop up, killing people was the furthest thing from their minds. I even believe that the company is, or at least has been, a beacon of responsible corporate citizenship–honestly I haven’t looked at it in great detail since the Unilever takeover a decade or so ago, so I’m not sure whether that’s still the plan or if it’s just the brand strategy.

But notwithstanding delicious ice cream and the good will of the founders, I have always hated the slogan Ben & Jerry’s uses sometimes: “If It’s Not Fun, Why Do It?”

Here’s why:

  • Because the kids need to eat
  • Because long-term happiness is more important than short-term pleasure
  • Because you’ll be glad you did, even though it was difficult at the time
  • Because you have a cavity
  • Because tequila isn’t good for dogs
  • Because it will clear the air
  • Because you promised
  • Because if you do it enough, it will really pay off
  • Because it will help you do fun stuff in the future
  • Because they can use your help
  • Because the cat box isn’t going to clean itself
  • Because integrity is more important (and more satisfying) than fun

I could go on like this all day, but they’re telling me it’s time for my meds. Let me just mention, though, that I’m very much in favor of making things you’ve decided to do fun–it’s practically essential. I’m just not in favor of deciding what’s worth doing based on whether or not it seems easy and pleasant. There’s more to life, right?


When Not to “Be Here Now”

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The mainstay New Age advice “Be here now,” is great sometimes. It’s essential for things like meditation, children’s birthday parties, May in Vermont, not letting your relatives freak you out, and dying well.

In other cases, “here and now” is overrated. Here are some suggested situations in which it’s best not to be here now:

* Figuring out where you left your keys
* Writing a novel
* Anything involving dentistry or proctology
* Using credit cards (which are more safely used while imagining your future financial state in vivid detail)
* Playing chess
* Working on your dissertation on a gorgeous Spring day when the birds are singing and [fill in outdoor activity of your choice] is calling
* Crossing the street (it’s best to think ten or fifteen seconds ahead for this)
* When now is depressing and thinking about what you can achieve in the future is inspiring
* Walking through any place where you have happy memories
* Cleaning the cat box

I’m just sayin’.

Photo by cogdogblog


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