Politics has become the art of forcing people into false binaries. It’s about suggesting that my political opponents are utterly unpalatable, and therefore no matter what I say, you must support me. This was the essence of 2016: both candidates made the same case along those lines.
But what happens when choices simply aren’t binary? What if we reduce American unity to a binary split for political gain?
That’s what we’re watching right now.
Make no mistake: there is wide consensus on the issue of NFL players kneeling for the national anthem. The vast majority of Americans think players who kneel for the anthem are disrespectful to the flag and the anthem; the vast majority of Americans also believe that players have the right to do it, and that owners have the right to fire them if they so choose.
But political actors on both sides have an interest in dividing us. And so President Trump loudly proclaims that kneeling is wrong (correct) and that players should be fired or audiences should boycott the league (incorrect from a government official); meanwhile, Democrats loudly proclaim that kneeling is justifiable (incorrect) and that the president should not push for players to be fired for exercising their free speech (correct).
Then they say that we must choose. Most Americans aren’t 100% with Trump or 100% with Colin Kaepernick; now the media and the politicians and the sports figures suggest we must pick one side or the other. We must prioritize. It’s either standing with patriotism, or it’s standing with free speech.
These false choices make the country worse. They prevent us from reaching consensus. They prevent us from even discussing the issues. Instead of addressing issues one-by-one, we pick a hot button action and then interpret it through the lens of our own choosing. We don’t debate a la 12 Angry Men; we insist on our own points of view, a la Rashomon.
But that’s not the recipe for a successful republic. If we can’t agree on basic principles — the flag is worth standing for, and so is the First Amendment — then we won’t have a republic much longer.