I’ve written much about the growing divide between the left and right in America in recent years, likening it to a new civil war of ideologies. It occurred to me last week there may actually be hope for bridging the divide and connecting us all again as citizens. Rationality hasn’t worked nor have pleas for civility, respectfulness and accuracy. Perhaps there could be a new reconciler in the wings.
One of the unintended consequences of the recent Wall Street meltdown has been an outrage on both sides of the ideological divide over one thing: the American people feel ripped off by market manipulators, particularly when those most responsible for this debacle walk away with millions in compensation. While we have been willing to reward greed, rewarding incompetence is not part of the American psyche. The outrage being reported around the Wall Street and banking meltdown seems to transcend ideologies. “This isn’t fair!” is a cry from all directions, not just left or right.
Americans have remained fairly quiet on a number of social fairness issues, among them equal compensation for women who do the same work as men, the legal system favoring defendants with money over those who don’t have much and special interest groups getting exceptional treatment by government . These are just three social inequities America has allowed to persist without major objection. Perhaps the pain of this global monetary crisis may hurt enough people bad enough that the social fairness agenda will come to a head and serve enough as a bond for a healing to occur across ideologies.
Market fundamentalists who normally scream hands off the regulation buttons are admitting something needs to be done to rein in the ever-ending greed and manipulations that have become so commonplace in the market. The triggering event for this change of heart may be the blatant unfairness of rewarding “over the top” greed and incompetence. Once there’s a willingness to look at the fairness issue, it becomes a human matter not an ideological one. There is a built-in unfairness in the system.
Washington insiders have lobbied for generations to tilt the tables in their favor, shaping the market to their liking. Anyone who examines all the special interests and the benefits they gain while the rest of us go without will see the market has been manipulated in their favor.
People are basically good at their core but circumstances seem to influence the decisions and choices they make. The culture that has existed on Wall Street includes taking advantage of if legal loopholes; it is okay! Another has been “if it isn’t illegal then it must be all right.” In others words, don’t bother using your conscience; just find ways to make a quick buck as fast as possible. And – there is no such thing as too much profit! This explains the culture that has been dominant until now and sheds some light on how CEOs can feel completely justified taking home $35 million while their companies are going bankrupt or being bailed out.
Am I being naïve and overly optimistic? I hope not. Something needs to transcend this deepening of the ideological divide among Americans – most of whom are essentially good people. We are tearing ourselves apart through this polarization and if ideals can’t bring us together maybe the shared pain and sheer outrage at the degree to which a small group of people will profit from the loss by so many others will reunite us. Will our basic human values regarding what’s right and what’s wrong prevail? I hope so.