What does it take to step beyond the mundane, the known, the settled certainties that govern our ideologies and alliances? What exceptional American passion still guides all of us, no matter how far apart we may think we are on so many issues that matter so much?
Last month, the American Music Awards had its annual televised extravaganza. While the show’s format invariably presented fodder for conservative criticism, late in the program, singers Christine Aguilera and Ian Axel took the stage to deliver a new song of extraordinary beauty. Not only is “Fall On Me” utterly apolitical—touching universal themes—if you changed just a few words, it could have been a gospel hit delivered by Hillsong.
Sooner or later the lights up above
Will come down in circles and guide me to love
The rapturous reception this song received, and the enduring power of a song like this before any audience, speaks to something universally present in the American psyche that can still be tapped—traits all Americans share of empathy, compassion, hope, and transcendental love.
So much has been alleged about how facts guide the conservative right-wing agenda, and emotion guides the liberal left-wing agenda. There’s probably some truth to this. One could go further and allege that to the extent the conservative agenda invokes fear and emotion, it is fear and emotion based on facts—welfare states cannot afford to absorb millions of unskilled immigrants year after year; the nations of the world cannot stop using fossil fuel without suffering an economic calamity.
Conversely, one could say that the liberal appeals to fear and emotion—open the borders because otherwise you have no heart; abandon fossil fuel because if you don’t the planet will swiftly become uninhabitable—are either blatantly counterfactual, or wild distortions.
But even if the most convincing assertions of the conservatives are correct, does this have to overshadow the things we share? Does this have to mean that conservatives can’t read this, hear this, experience this, and be moved by it?
I want to believe in a world we can’t see
Millions of particles passing through me
And I know there’s a meaning
I feel it, I swear
What is the connectivity that brings the passion of a Christian into alignment with the compassion of a secular artist who feels life just as intensely, who searches for meaning with equal fervor, who wants to do good works just as much, who shares the same concerns about the future, the same reverence for the world we can’t see? In a society polarized by trillion-dollar communications monopolies that optimize their profits with negative clickbait and addictive algorithms, how does love break through?
Douglas Murray, who argues in his 2017 book, The Strange Death of Europe, that Christians and secular conservatives have to join together to save Western culture, goes one step further in his 2019 volume, The Madness of Crowds.
While Murray is no left-winger, he recognizes that the extremism of the Left is more than just the product of a blueprint being systematically imposed on society by a hardened elite. It is also an expression of the human need to believe in something higher than themselves. Replacing God is Gaia; replacing Christ is John Lennon’s brotherhood of man, absent religion. And Murray understands that this urge for meaning is amplified and distorted by the Pavlovian power of social media. His answer—replace shaming and canceling people with forgiveness.
Fall on me
With open arms
Fall on me
From where you are
Fall on me
With all your light
The problem here, of course, is that forgiveness is just a word and at the same time, Americans are being programmed to grow further apart. But here again, American music offers anyone willing to listen an opportunity to feel transcendental empathy.
Earlier this year, in the 61st Grammy Awards, folk singer Brandi Carlile delivered a stunning rendition of her hit song, “The Joke.” This is an explicitly political song, telling the story of a bullied boy in the first verse, a battered immigrant woman in the second. But the raw emotion of Carlile’s performance was universal. It wasn’t about Left or Right, or this boy, or that woman. It was about everyone who has ever been down. When these artists sing their hearts out, read between the lines. This is America. This is our culture. We care. We can do better. We will do better.
Conservatives can offer facts and solutions at the same time they embrace fully and share in the feelings these artists express. Without compromising one bit on their core beliefs, conservatives can look past and forgive the righteous hatred that is so often directed at them by liberals, knowing that most liberals, in their hearts, want the same good things to happen in the world.
Take away the puppeteers, take away the technology-driven Pavlovian polarization unique to this era, and we are still Americans. We can be bigger than our differences if we want.