Beyond Polarization

Michael K. Duffey is the author of War No More: An Introduction to Nonviolent Struggles for Justice (Rowman and Littlefield, 2021).

Violence in the United States in 2020-2021 was stark yet predictable. Conflict over how to curb the spread of COVID-19 reflected deep division. George Floyd’s brutal and senseless death at the hands (his knee, actually) of a policeman swelled the masses of citizens declaring that “Black Lives do Matter” and demanding police reform. But others, echoing President Donald Trump, declared that public order was the critical issue. Some paramilitarists were only too happy to attack racial justice protestors. Finally came a constitutional crisis never witnessed in the United States, when an armed mob descended on the Capitol on January 6, 2021, to prevent a joint session of Congress from fulfilling its constitutional duty to certify that Joseph Biden had won the 2020 presidential election. Sixty-two courts dismissed Trump’s claim of election fraud, but his daily inflammatory rhetoric convinced millions of his supporters that the election had been rigged. No doubt, many cheered the “patriots” who stormed the Capitol in the name of “the will of the people.”

1. Hostility and violence

In 2014 the Pew Research Center reported a widening gap between conservatives and liberals from 1994 and 2014, writing: 

partisan animosity has increased substantially over [this] period. In each party. …the share of a highly negative view of the opposing party has more than doubled since 1994. Most of these intense partisans believe the opposing party’s policies are so misguided that they threaten the nation’s well-being (Pew, 2014).

In Together: The Healing Power of Human Connection in a Sometimes Lonely World, Vivek Murthy, former U.S. Surgeon General, reports that a poll in 2018 found that 79% of those polled believed that “the negative tone and lack of civility in Washington will lead to violence” (Murthy 2020, p. 160). In Congress and State Legislatures, the tone of opposing views has become shrill, the truth twisted to score points, and suspicion deepening, opponents demonized, all creating a toxic environment. January 6 was the fruit.

2. Distrust and disconnection

In another Pew study, respondents were asked whether they agreed or disagreed with the statement: “Americans’ low trust in each other makes it harder to solve many of the country’s problems.”  70% agreed. The researchers noted the urgency of interpersonal trust. A millennial lamented how divided America was and how difficult to enter dialogue:

We have become a very polarized society where people make snap judgments about others solely based on their political leanings. It was not like this before. In the past people may meet someone new and get to know them and realize what they have in common. Now if you meet someone and they are on the opposite end of the political scale, then people tend to make all-encompassing assumptions about many aspects of who that person is and don’t necessarily realize they have a lot in common.” (https://www.pewresearch.org/politics/2019/07/22/the-state-of-personal-trust)

She is not alone in wanting to meet others rather than only making snap judgments about them. In 2020, in another survey by the Pew Research Center, 40% of respondents said they had no contact with people of opposing views. (https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2020/12/11/20-striking-findings-from-2020)

Murthy observes that social disconnection contributes to “loneliness, alienation, and anger violently expressed” (Murthy 2020, p. 140). This helps to explain why some alienated loners lash out and turn violently on others whom they resent, while others join groups that share their hostility toward society.

How will pressing social issues be addressed in a polarized environment, in which hostile camps shout across the divides, if they talk at all? Here are examples of the “conversation stoppers”:

  • There is / is not systemic racism in the United States.
  • Addressing climate change is urgent / climate change is natural and not a result of human activity.
  • Immigrants from south of the U.S. border help / hurt the U.S. economy.
  • People of color have more health problems and contracted COVID in disproportionately high numbers because poor health corelates with poverty / because they do not take care of themselves and their children.
  • COVID-19 is a major threat requiring community cooperation / COVID was not a great threat but hyped by the media for some peoples’ advantage.

Some Americans believe it is imperative to commit to greater justice. Others believe that the status quo is acceptable as long as the freedom of individuals is protected. (By promoting caricatures, social media may impede conversation where face to face encounters may produce understanding. But discussion of social media is a topic for another day.) 

Almost two centuries ago Alexis de Tocqueville visited the United States and described the young nation as one of “competitive individualism stirred by commerce [but] balanced and humanized by the restraining influence of a fundamentally egalitarian ethic of community responsibility” (de Tocqueville, p. 506). Individualism remains a national hallmark, but, as de Tocqueville suggests, must be tempered by concern for the common good.

Rather than turning our back on one another, how can we form the habit of taking an interest in others’ lives? One definition of “interest,” according to Marriam-Webster is “a feeling that accompanies or causes special attention to something or someone.” How can we find one another? How do we humanize each other? It is not only those on the fringe who are alienated. Millions of citizens distrust others and wonder “how could they possibly believe that… .”   

3. A modest proposal for positive political encounters

The process briefly described below is at this point only an idea. Its goal is to facilitate conversations about views and values across a spectrum. Too often, people only feel safe sharing their views with those whom they believe agree with them. The hope here is to create a space for people who may not agree to have a conversation. Here is how a process might unfold.:

  1. Advertise small gatherings that might be called “Conversations to Overcome Political Divides.”
  2. Those who respond could be small groups, perhaps only four people, so that the atmosphere is intimate and safe.
  3. At the outset, the “host” could explain the need and the hope of political conversations such as this.
  4. The group is asked to choose a social issue for their discussion. Here are some possibilities: 
    Wealth and poverty Given the wide U.S wealth gap, do you think it should be narrowed? How?;
    Public health What shortcomings in the public health system became evident as the country sought to fight COVID-19? ;
    Immigration What do you think immigrants contribute to the U.S. economy? How do you think they might be a drain on the economy?;
    Guns What is your view about gun possession? How would you regulate it?;
    Human rights What should the United States do to protect human rights in other places? Do we have human rights problems in the U.S.?
  5. This structured conversation could take this form: each person has fifteen minutes to speak. That will be followed by half an hour open exchange.
  6. This is a sharing of views, not a debate. Steer the group away from debate or an adversarial stance if necessary. Personal sharing rather than offering data will be most helpful. A good place to begin is to ask participants if they can identify when or how their views were formed. Were there specific events that shaped their views? These are the real “human interest” stories that reveal people to one another.
  7. The host is not a participant but primarily a listener who keeps the process on track. But as part of the wrap-up, the host can refer to the importance of the common good to shape a good society. Ask participants at the end of the session how their discussion relates to the principle of the common good. Ask them as well how they would promote the common good.

The Common Good
The common good are goods that all people need to flourish. The common good is not the private goods of individuals taken together, for many people who do not have access to goods would be left out; nor is the common good the “greatest good for the greatest number” for that leaves those without equal access to opportunities on the margin. Rather the common good includes what all members of a society need to live and thrive.

Convictions are personal and part of self-identity. It is natural to feel threatened when convictions are challenged. But as human interest grows, others are revealed as people whose views also have a logic, even if a different logic. But there is a common ground on which to stand. When good will surfaces it may become possible to find agreement on how to approach issues. Self-discoveries may emerge that what unites us is more than what divides us.

Most of us have a viewpoint that we have stuck with. All too often our children inherited it. Joining a small group for a guided conversation may be a liberating experience. What occasions this reflection is concern that in a society as polarized as ours, unless we work together, we face perennial paralysis.

I hope to “pilot” this effort in two places, my Catholic parish here in Milwaukee and Marquette University. The latter has students in the peace studies center who have learned to facilitate peer mediations and are equipped to function as hosts. With encouragement from instructors, students in various courses (political science, sociology, psychology, social work, etc.) might participate.

References

Murthy, Vivek. Together: The Healing Power of Human Connection in a Sometimes Lonely World. (New York: Harper Collins, 2020).

Tocqueville, Alexis de. 1835 and 1840. Democracy in America. Trans George Lawrence. Ed. J.P.Mayer. (New York: Doubleday, Anchor Books, 1969).  

The author would be most appreciative of the responses and suggestions from readers. He may be reached at michael.duffey@marquette.edu.