When I was a kid I was a voracious reader. I still am, but the subject matter has changed considerably over the years.
Back then I mostly read history or historical fiction, and I quickly burned through the juvenile sections of those genres in both the public and school libraries in the little town where I grew up. Then I moved on to the adult history section.
I think that my childhood fascination with history was a good thing, for a couple of reasons. One was that it made me a reader, which gave me an advantage in business as well as at school. Being a reader has also enriched my life, and since you are reading this column right now I suspect that you understand what I am talking about.
The other was that it pretty much gave me a pass through high school social studies, and allowed me to pick up quite a few easy college credits as well. There was one college course, however, that threw me a curveball.
It was entitled “Conflict and Consensus in American History,” which sounded innocuous enough to me when I signed up for it, and I was very confident that I was familiar with the significant events that make up American history. The problem was that the course wasn’t about events.
Apparently there was a historical theory that had become popular in academic circles at the time (it may still be, for all I know) to the effect that the progress of humankind is driven more by agreement than disagreement. In other words, the things which we remember by specific dates, such as battles, elections, and natural disasters, are not nearly as significant as we had always thought.
What matters more is the growth and movement of ideas, beliefs and information. If the concept of democracy, for example, catches on among the masses, governments will inevitably move in that direction, regardless of all the ups and downs along the way. The same could be said of religion, or art, or science.
Unfortunately, it was those violent and dramatic events which had drawn me to history in the first place. Like a lot of young males, I liked conflict, and I liked reading about it. I didn’t know anything about the movement of intellectual constructs.
I also didn’t completely buy the premise of the course. Ideas can be very powerful things, but wouldn’t the course of history have been altered if the battle of Hastings had gone the other way? Or Saratoga? Or Gettysburg?
Sometimes the world seems to turn on a dime. If Hitler’s astrologer had told him that the stars weren’t aligned quite right for an invasion of Russia, we might be living in a very different place today.
In spite of my reservations I managed to get through the course, and I will concede that it has had a lasting effect on my thinking. At least I now consider the effects of consensus.
That said, I still think that conflicts of one type or another are hugely important. Look at the 2000 presidential election between George W. Bush and Al Gore. It was fought tooth and nail to a virtual standstill, and was ultimately decided by a few ballots in Florida that could easily have been cast in error.
If Gore had won, do you suppose that his administration would have been caught up in the same waves of cultural change, ethnic animosities and financial instability that overtook Bush, and that we would have arrived at the same point we are at now? I don’t have an answer for that question.
Ever since that disputed election, it has seemed as though conflict drives the process, at least in our Federal government. There are 535 voting members of Congress, representing widely diverse constituencies and, you would think, a full spectrum of political ideologies.
Yet these people vote strictly along two opposing party lines 90 percent of the time. (As recently as 1970, that number was more like 60 percent.) Unless one party controls the White House and both houses of Congress, it is virtually impossible to pass significant legislation.
There are nine votes on the Supreme Court, of course, and it only requires a simple majority to make a decision. Although it may seem to be divided on partisan lines as clearly as the Congress, there is actually more consensus in this body than you might expect. Since that fateful year of 2000, the most common outcome is unanimous, at 36 percent of all cases. A 5-4 vote has occurred just 15 percent of the time.
In terms of the electorate itself, there is no doubt that it has steadily become more polarized in the 21st century. During the past 18 years, Republicans who self-identify as “conservative” have increased from 60 percent to 73 percent, while Democrats who consider themselves “liberal” have grown from 25 percent to 51 percent. Moderates in both parties have decreased accordingly.
It has also seemed as though the business community has been polarized, not by ideology but rather by technology. On one side of the divide we have old-school players like print magazine publishers and brick-and-mortar retailers, and on the other we have online media and internet merchants.
The numbers are still on the side of the traditionalists, with more than 90 percent of retail sales, for example, but the momentum is all on the side of the usurpers. It feels like a war in which the end result has been preordained.
But are the two sides really in conflict, or are they seeking consensus?
I buy dog food from the local Tractor Supply, and last week they sent me a $5-off coupon for that particular brand of dog food, via an email that gave me a link to their website. It was a little creepy, because my dog was just about to finish off the last 40-pound bag that I had bought. At any rate, I paid for it online and picked it up that night at the store.
I talked to a woman here in our office who carries that process to the next level. She orders all her groceries from an app on her phone, then picks them up after work in a drive-thru lane at the supermarket.
Basically, consumers don’t care who wins the war between conventional and online services. They don’t even care whether or not there is such a war. They have their own problems.
People want what they want when they want it. If you can save them a couple bucks at the same time that’s a nice touch, but it’s not the main point. Convenience is king.
That should be something we can all agree on.
You can e-mail Kevin at email@example.com.