I live in two worlds simultaneously. In one, I am constantly bombarded by screams of rage and frustration. Famous persons like Donald Trump and Joe Biden get in my face and yell that I must think or talk or vote this way or that. Rampaging mobs and warbands roam this world, ready to punish anyone who speaks taboo words or utters heretical opinions: you can lose your job and your reputation in an instant. Names of individuals who don’t actually exist materialize like phantoms before my eyes, demanding that I like, that I follow, that I friend. Insults from people I have never met are a commonplace occurrence. Death threats surface.
Social psychologist Jonathan Haidt has likened this world to the Tower of Babel. “We are disoriented,” Haidt writes of the experience, “unable to speak the same language or recognize the same truth.” To me, it feels like the nightmare psych ward, where the patients are in charge and the rest of us have been put in restraints.
This is the world of my laptop. It’s where I am right now.
But if I raise my eyes just a bit from my laptop, I see my window––and it opens up to a radically different world. Across the front lawn of my Virginia home, real people stroll with their children, walk their dogs, jog for exercise, ride bikes, clip their bushes, all with a magnificent lack of awareness of how free and serene such activities appear. These are my neighbors. I know the age of their children and the breeds of their dogs, but I have no idea which of them voted for Trump or Biden. The most acute confrontations here involve dog poop on immaculate lawns. Otherwise, we smile and wave as we pass each other, and get on with life.
The window also opens inward to home and family. My children are grown. Two of them are happily married. The oldest has justified his existence by producing two grandsons. When the “kids” come for a visit, the old house once again vibrates with life. When the grandkids arrive, my wife and I practically kneel in worship––they seem like such glorious creatures. Since the younger generation always goes astray, we don’t agree much in our politics. Who cares? Disagreement just gives us another reason to talk past midnight.
The window world isn’t paradise. My parents are gone forever. My sister died too young. Tragedy and anxiety are felt with a terrible intensity: family basically means that one’s feelings are hostage to the happiness of others. But there’s no meanness, no fakery, no posturing for attention. We all know too well who we are––and the joys shared together are felt even more deeply than the pain.
I’m by no means alone in inhabiting the two worlds. Most of us split our lives this way. According to one poll, Americans spend an average of seven hours, or 40 percent of our waking time, online. We work in the laptop world; we shop there––and, of course, we fight without mercy there. Because it feels like a gathering place and a public stage, we tend to judge ourselves, individually and as a people, by our online behavior. That judgment is never kind. Like the chorus in a Greek tragedy, troops of experts utter periodic warnings that digital platforms “fuel political polarization.” More accurately, in my opinion, Haidt describes this rather as “a story about the fragmentation of everything.”
Inside the laptop, the self is flat, disconnected, ahistorical, hungry for some facsimile of excitement and meaning. Alone in the digital storm, that impoverished character gets easily swept up by the most extreme rhetoric on behalf of some cause or another. The mob conveys the illusion of community. Anger impersonates spiritual life. Since the hunger still gnaws, we blame society, the system, failed institutions, the politicians we have been told to fear and loathe.
The true American culture war today is between the world of the laptop and that of the window, and the laptop is winning. About this, everyone agrees. But how, then, to account for those peaceable neighbors and joyful family moments? I think we need to be clear where the boundaries lie in this war of the worlds. Digital isn’t the totality of existence––even within the laptop, much of what occurs is transactional rather than dystopian. People may rant at presidents on Twitter, but they trust Amazon.
The American public, in the flesh, hasn’t quite lost its common sense. Divisive issues like immigration, presented in fanatical, all-or-nothing terms online, are received differently by ordinary persons. A large majority of the public believes immigration is a good thing––almost as large a majority believes illegal immigration isn’t so great. The same sort of hedging can be found regarding abortion. From any perspective, these aren’t the dogmas of storm troopers or nihilists. These are the people of the window, walking with their children and their pooches, roaring it up late at night in the family room, tolerant and sensibly moderate in attitude.
The conflict will end in one of two ways. We can become, face-to-face, the same unanchored, petty, vicious creatures we have shriveled into inside the laptop: the betting runs heavily this way. Or we can flood the digital realm with vast numbers of humanity in the round––we can overwhelm bluster with character, deviousness with honesty, and threats with toughness and courage. Is this a realistic possibility? No one can say, but I’ll venture this: one lesson I have learned during a very long life is never to bet against the American people.
Martin Gurri is a former CIA analyst specializing in the relationship of politics and global media. His book, The Revolt of the Public and the Crisis of Authority in the New Millennium, first published in 2014 and updated in 2018, has been praised for foreshadowing the political shocks of Brexit and the rise of Donald Trump. Gurri has published numerous articles, studies, and opinion pieces on geopolitical- and media-related topics. His blog, The Fifth Wave, pursues the themes first elaborated in The Revolt of the Public.