Four years after Split: A Divided America, filmmaker Kelly Nyks again travels the country to ask people six questions that might reveal why our nation has become even more divided since last election season. And though we don’t hear Nyks ask these questions to anyone on his drive across America, as topics they serve to categorize the doc’s speedy but thorough overview of the at times obvious issues at play: faith, race, morals, class, mobility, political branding, media, culture, etc. But if Split: A Deeper Divide is able to gather insights into the hows and whys of our current state of partisanship, it does so while also illustrating that it won’t be easy to reverse the trends that are responsible for this, ones that Harvard professor Robert Putnam generally attributes to dual-career families, urban sprawl, long commutes, and television.
Putnam uses bowling as an example from yesteryear of a nonpartisan activity that brought us together, as people waiting for their turn to bowl often engaged in political discourse with others. Today, TV has taken the place of many such social-bonding activities. But Nyks points out how ironic it is that media, one of the only things still uniting us (our “national town hall,” as one interviewee puts it), is also one of the things that divides us most, largely through narrowcasting, which allows us to never have to watch what we don’t already agree with. And it’s in this light that A Deeper Divide looks strongest: as a political doc seeking to understand why we no longer seem able to overcome our differences for the sake of country, as opposed to one that pits one party against another.
The doc rightly points out the signs that tell us how our political system isn’t working the way it was designed to (Madison’s Marketplace of Ideas, for one, no longer works because it presumes that truth will emerge during a debate, but today there’s only the appearance of debate): Filibustering has become routine (even when one party has good ideas, the other party can’t support them because it would jeopardize their chances of getting reelected), our country’s credit rating has been lowered because of the government’s inability to pass legislation, and campaigns are won, as Noam Chomsky points out, based on the advertising created by the same PR companies that sell you toothpaste.
A Deeper Divide can be thought of as an example of what psychologist Philip Tetlock, author of Expert Political Judgment: How Good Is It? How Can We Know?, terms a fox: a rare kind of political commentator unlikely to be invited into the media realm because they are complex thinkers, unlike hedgehogs, the opinionated, extreme, and overly confident idiots who producers prefer because they make for good entertainment. But what’s more, the Split docs (it doesn’t seem possible to describe one without the other as A Deeper Divide contains recycled material from A Divided America) feature both hedgehogs (Steve Deace, a conservative talk-radio host who believes our constitution was written with God’s orders) and foxes (Jacob Hacker, a professor of political science at Yale), and since the films operate, more or less, as soundbite collages, the topics tend to move along quickly, which, like the media the films criticize, keeps things entertaining, but possibly at the cost of giving the audience the needed time to mull over the barrage of ideas. While the production values leave much to be desired, and though it would probably function best as a classroom tool (which it plans to do, according to the press notes), as an election-season reminder that our democratic system isn’t functioning, it serves as a welcome wake-up call.