The 2016 U.S. presidential election left a great many number of Americans wondering how the nation had gotten to a place where Americans could no longer agree on core values. However, while everyone frames the deterioration of values and civility through the election, a multi-disciplinary team is going to expose how individual Americans might be a part of the problem in the search for common values--the key to any great nation’s longevity.
The American Question sets out to find that answer by exploring the divisions occurring across all pillars of American society. According to the film’s producer Guy Seemann and director James Kicklighter, a single core theory goes beyond a Republican-versus-Democrat divide, and seeps down to the community level and tears neighborhoods apart. Guy and James set out after the 2016 election to prove their theory right--by talking to the average American face-to-face.
We sat down with Guy to learn more about the question behind The American Question, how he views this great divide from a historical and cultural perspective, and how he hopes the film will encourage Americans to reconcile around the country’s core Constitutional principles.
The American Question Blog: Where did the idea for the documentary come from?
Guy Seemann (Producer, The American Question): I worked as a regional director in Pennsylvania in the field on Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign. I had actually started to distance myself from the Democratic Party, but this election made me choose a side. It was my seventh campaign (they called me in during the last month of the election) and I had been out of the game for a few years beforehand. What I saw when I got in the field shocked me. It proved why I had distanced myself from party politics in the USA. The animosity and hatred between people wasn’t just Republicans versus Democrats; it had spread into micro-sectors of the community. Black versus white, small business owners at each other’s throats, and others were splitting into two groups and blaming each other for all their problems. Even community parent-teacher associations were dividing into two sparring camps. The reasoning behind the animosity was so illogical to me. So I called coworkers on the campaign to ask if they were observing the same things I was, and to my surprise, they had seen it, too.
TAQ: Was this because of the 2016 election?
GS: These divides had nothing to do with the election. The fights were springing up over specific core values which are supposed to unite us as a nation. Religion, speech, equality, opportunity -- these concepts were coming up over and over again. According to Side A, opposing side B didn’t “believe” in these values or hold these values dear. I kept hearing it repeatedly, and it left me scratching my head. How did we get to this point, where neighbors quite literally won’t talk to each other because they’re on the "other side"? So I decided to conduct some research to see if I could get to the bottom of this.
TAQ: What did you discover?
GS: Personally, I had thought about this issue for years, but some researchers have actually identified this phenomenon as “generational” American history. The United States goes through an identity crisis every 80 to 100 years. As it turns out, we are in the midst of the fourth cycle of massive division the United States, the first being the Revolutionary War, the second being the Civil War, and the third being World Wars I and II through the Civil Rights Movement.
TAQ: How did we get to this fourth identity crisis?
GS: This goes back to World War II, which is widely considered to be the hardest-working generation in American history. They went to war for values, worked hard and were willing to sacrifice for their families, remained community-oriented and built a pleasant life for their children. Years later, the Vietnam War is met with a massive counter-culture where people begin to blame the U.S. policy, corporations and others for the world’s problems. Civics and values lessons were removed from the school curriculum in the 1970s. This radical shift in culture, away from the hard work and community-oriented focus of the Greatest Generation, starts to break apart the United States into different segments. Now, we have a United States which is no longer the cohesive unit it once was. community involvement from Lions clubs to PTAs is down 70 percent. We went from a country which stood firmly against an opponent of community values--the British, slavery, Nazis--to a nation that is lacking an identity.
TAQ: What did talking to people about these values, or lack of agreement on these values, reveal to you?
GS: I found that there was a real cognitive dissonance here, a disconnect between reality and the ideas people had idealized. For example, one interviewee talked at great length about how hard-working his parents were and how their work ethic made America great. When I asked what he would do if he would need to be re-trained for a job, he said he wouldn’t be willing to do that because it would affect his comfort level. His parents’ generation was known for hard work and sacrifice (values he idealized) and here he was refusing to do the same thing. Instead he blamed the “coastal elite” for his problems because in his view they don’t want to work hard for a living--just want to make money. Now, when he makes decisions, he’s making them as the culprit of a system he perceives as broken. Another, broader example is happening on many of America’s elite college campuses. While these students--who are led astray by a faculty unable to separate their own opinions from a-political fact--claim to fight for freedom of speech, they are actually the ones silencing opposition and enhancing the animosity. And similar disconnects came up in many of the interviews we conducted.
TAQ: So the film reveals that this cognitive dissonance is actually at the root of the issues, not a particular event or political state. Were there any common themes which could potentially patch up these divisions?
GS: A lot of the people interviewed were answering our questions in the same vocabulary, even if they didn’t realize it. They had the same concerns and beliefs, but were coming at them from different angles. Generally, they no longer believed that America fights for freedom of speech, that the justice system is corrupt, that opportunity is lost, and many other Constitutional concepts which had always been a part of America’s core values are no longer being practiced. These weren’t fringe people, either. These were regular, moderately right or left people, who were civically-minded, community-oriented, always voted, but now they feel pushed to the sides and they blame each other instead of trying to unite on these same values. So there’s actually some common ground here.
TAQ: Do you think there’s hope?
GS: To be honest, it’s not even about hope or lack thereof, it’s about societal ebb and flow. America created the most tolerant and progressive value system when it was founded. It is the reason why people wanted to study, work, pray, and raise a family here. Whenever our values were challenged, there were enough people to stand up and say, "No, we will not abandon our values just because they aren’t comfortable at this moment in time." So as long as our project reveals where the divide really comes from, that we have been here before and we have overcome it a few times, we will be OK. My bigger concern is that America remain a superpower. The only way that can crumble is if, for the first time, a majority of people do not stand up for American values. We want people to do a gut-check to see if they are also adding to the problem through decision-making that only benefits themselves while throwing everyone else under the bus. We have never succeeded like that as a nation, and it won’t help that person succeed for too long if he/she abandons the long-term vision of his/her community.