Arnie Weissmann
Arnie Weissmann

Terrorism, economic uncertainty and the Zika virus have introduced varying degrees of anxiety into 2016 vacation planning. But there is also an undercurrent of unease tied to the upcoming general election. Whichever political party you are aligned with, the thought of one (or either) of the presumptive nominees becoming president could be a truly frightening proposition.

I recently had the opportunity to lunch with political consultant (and Democrat) James Carville, and I heard him speak the next day. He gave his thoughts not only about why we've arrived where we have, politically speaking, but the role that travel can play in determining how we move forward as a nation.

The single, most troubling thing in American politics, he said, is negative partisanship. In the past, on a scale from one to 10, someone might rate his or her own party as an average of 7.9 and the opposing party as 3.2. But today the numbers would be 6.9 to .0005.

"They like their own party less, but the other party hugely less," Carville said.

That attitude, he said, is a result of all arguments being positioned as apocalyptic.

"It's either death or prosperity," he said. "We can no longer accept that there is policy we simply disagree with. The other side represents greed, treason, racism."

Carville was up front in acknowledging his past contributions to political polarization, but in his current role as a political science professor at Tulane University, he is focused on studying political campaigns and demographics.

He said that the departure from the norm, manifested most dramatically in the expected nomination of Donald Trump and mirrored in the U.K. by the Brexit vote, is best explained in "The Rise and Fall of American Growth: The U.S. Standard of Living Since the Civil War," by Robert J. Gordon (Princeton University Press, 2016). It analyzes how advances in technology from 1870 to 1970 resulted in net growth in jobs and prosperity but how, since then, innovation has disproportionately benefited the better educated and prosperous.

The inability for most people to see a path to improve their lives underlies the political turmoil we're seeing today.

"The only demographic in the U.S. whose life expectancy has declined is noncollege whites," Carville said. "They're dying from prescription drug overdose, liver failure, suicide, diabetes -- all, in a sense, forms of suicide. If you made the decision not to go to college, your life is not good."

As for this year's election, he would not make a prediction but said the outcome will likely be determined by a single demographic group: college-educated white people.

"I know how Hispanics will vote, how blacks will vote, how Jews will vote, everyone but this group," he said. "Historically -- in fact, for as long as polls have been taken -- the majority of college-educated whites have been Republicans."

But this year, the presence of Trump at the top of the ticket makes it less clear for whom this group will vote.

Exacerbating the nation's divide is a geographic divide.

"We're sorted out," he said. "Democrats live in the cities, and Republicans everywhere else. We don't interact anymore. We don't live with each other."

He cited, among the few exceptions he sees in polarized thinking, people who are involved in politics and people involved in the travel industry.

Politics? Really?

Contrary to the fierce partisanship on public display, Carville said that, in private, people involved in politics "don't think they know everything." This professed open-mindedness might find its most visible expression in his own marriage: His spouse is Republican strategist Mary Matalin.

(He said that he's often asked whether they're raising their children as Democrats or Republicans. His response is one that parents on both sides of the aisle can appreciate: "Are you kidding? I can't even get them to close the damn door.")

Likewise, people involved in travel "know there's a world out there," he said, and are interested in learning more about it.

I would take that a bit further and say that the act of travel can play a constructive role in reducing polarization, but only under certain conditions.

When people are traveling, their best selves can emerge. In the presence of stunning landscapes, historical wonders, artistic genius, creative cuisine, magnificent wildlife, physically challenging undertakings and family-intensive activities, the mind reflexively drifts toward feelings of connectedness with others and a shared appreciation for living and life. Even in the presence of historical misdeeds, the storyline moves toward overcoming dark times.

This summer in America, there is an opportunity to go beyond the urban/nonurban silos Carville describes as we come together in national parks and theme parks, in Times Square and town squares, on coastlines and cruise lines.

But my view is not exclusively rose-colored; I also see that the industry caters to the impulse to be segregated among those of our demographic ilk and to vacation with the like-minded.

As the industry creates vacations for others, this might be a good year to look at activities that include opportunities to interact with, and connect to, fellow citizens.

There are large, underlying issues that need to be addressed to reduce polarization, but there is also value in bringing together people who otherwise remain only within familiar places, surrounded only by familiar views.


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