Ride or die.
Support The Bulwark.
  Join Now

Unplug from the Matrix

Let’s break the the cycle of fear and loathing, manipulation and tribalism.
August 16, 2020
Featured Image
(Shutterstock)

There is so much agreement in America right now.

If you remove the extremes on the left and right who have been blinded by bias and hatred, you will find most of Americans agree about the basics:

  • We believe hard work and innovation should be rewarded.
  • We believe everyone should play by the same rules, that the same laws should apply to all, regardless of race, religion, or background.
  • We believe in opportunity, that everyone should have a fair shot to earn a sustainable living for themselves and their family. And that working Americans have not received that fair shot for a generation.
  • We believe in laws and stability and want a competent, fair, and just legal system with enforcement that protects us all equally and is deserving of our respect.
  • We believe in the right to hold opposing views.
  • We believe in borders around our country and in a lawful, regulated, and humane immigration system.
  • We believe that children from every community should have access to quality education.
  • We believe the stain of slavery and racism has not been lifted from America, in spite of the great progress that’s been made.
  • We believe affordable healthcare should be available to every American, regardless of pre-existing conditions, and that prescription drugs are too expensive.
  • We believe in preserving our oceans, land, and skies for future generations.

We may disagree on the extent or degree of some of the above, but the overwhelming majority of us hold these values to be self-evident.

The main issues Americans are ideologically divided on?:

  • Whether abortion should be a government-funded right. (But even on this issue, Americans are in agreement that it should remain legal with restrictions.)
  • To what extent the rights of LGBTQ people are more or less important than the rights of those whose religions oppose such practices.

That’s it. The rest is noise from the extremes. Think Americans disagree on taxation? Nope, 76 percent think the wealthy should pay more. Think the left is ruled by political correctness? Nope, 80 percent of Americans, including a majority of liberals, think political correctness, “cancel culture” is a problem.

So why do so many people believe the culture wars are tearing America apart? Why does the extreme 15 percent on either side make all the noise? Because four incredibly powerful groups want it to be that way:

  • Social media platforms and the tech giants who run them, who gain from creating division.
  • Mainstream news media, which is ineluctably drawn to discord and noise, for the sake of ratings and ad sales.
  • Politicians, who use division to raise money for their reelections.
  • Lobbyists, who want us to believe we’re divided so we won’t rise up in righteous wrath when Congress passes laws benefiting corporations and special interests before people, laws that are only supported by a fraction of the population.

These groups have created a Matrix-like information universe that monetizes, thrives, and feeds on our dissent and pain, and keeps us compulsively focused on our few areas of disagreement rather than our overwhelming similarities, until disagreement is all we can see. And they have acted as enablers for the extremists on both sides, the tribalists, who have stoked fear and loathing among their followers, painting anyone who disagrees as evil and a danger to the Republic. Twitter has become the center of this universe, so filled with abuse that users find themselves claustrophobic and alone, afraid to engage in the truthful discussions that would foster compromise, progress, and strength.

This matrix of fear and loathing has flooded our lizard brains for the last four years, overwhelming our ability to differentiate fact from fiction. We are all like Dorothy, trembling before the terrifying visage of the Wizard just before Toto pulls the curtain aside and reveals the little man behind. It’s time for all of us to pull that curtain aside, to rise above the constant manipulation, unplug from this cycle of abuse, and end the illusion of winner-take-all tribalism.

The fact that we haven’t reflects the extent to which each of us has allowed ourselves—even just a little—to be corrupted by our own insecurity, confirmation-bias, dulled empathy, and need to project our own shortcomings on the culture around us. Division is a toxin that is seeping into all of us, and it will take immense collective will—and a profound shift in leadership—to stop it.

But we’ve done it before. America has triumphed many times over divisiveness because of two traits that have defined us from the beginning: optimism and—even more important—level-headed thinking.

As Election Day draws near, America has the chance to stand up to the forces that would bleed away our belief in the future and our ability to think for ourselves.

Because November 3 is not just about who we’re voting for, it’s about what we’re voting for. Are we a nation defined by the few who profit from our pain, or are we a nation that stands together on the principles an overwhelming number of us agree on?

Will the next four years take us further down the road of divisiveness until it is no longer an illusion but our lived reality?

Or will we choose the path of our own time-honored values—unity, freedom, decency, strength?

Gregg Hurwitz and Marshall Herskovitz

Gregg Hurwitz is a New York Times #1 internationally bestselling author and Marshall Herskovitz is a writer, producer, and director in Los Angeles.