When politicians start talking about large groups of their fellow Americans as “enemies,” it’s time for a quiet stir of alertness. Polarizing people is a good way to win an election, and also a good way to wreck a country. ― Molly Ivins
Lately Americans bemoan “polarization”, the cultural and political divide that seems to tear at the country’s fabric. And for good reason: the old civility has been lost in a sea of angry Tweets and vicious Facebook postings; discussions decay into shouting matches; political rallies degenerate into violence.
What happened?? For one thing, recently there has been a nearly unbroken streak of victories by the Left over the Right. Liberals are jubilant, while conservatives seethe.
Let’s take inventory:
Recent Wins for Liberals:
- National health care
- Contraception rights
- Gay rights
- Transgender rights
- Immigrant rights
- Marijuana legalization
- Tobacco restrictions
- Campus speech shaming
- “Black Lives Matter” police restrictions
- Environmental laws
- Minimum wage growth
- Black president
- Woman nominee for president
Recent Wins for Conservatives:
- Gun rights
- Citizens United
That’s a bit lopsided. It’s almost as if there has been a wholesale takeover of American society in just a few years. No wonder people on the Right are boiling.
It’s not that all these wins represent the Triumph of Evil, as conservatives might have you believe. Some of the changes could arguably be beneficial. The point is that it’s been a landslide for Progressives, while the Right — despite its hold on Congress — has had to swallow mud.
The U.S. would likely be as polarized if Republicans had scored more than a dozen victories in a row. But the rapid changes of a high-tech urban society tend to create problems that the old traditions weren’t designed to resolve, and, rather than adapt those traditions so they can address modern issues, the Right says, “Just leave things the way they are.” Meanwhile, the Left comes up with a definite plan of action that tosses out the old customs and replaces them with newfangled experiments. It doesn’t matter if the plan is screwy — at least it’s a plan! And the public is drawn to action instead of inaction. Thus the Right defaults to the Left.
Meanwhile, we’ve uprooted the debates about social practices and moved them to Washington, stripping local communities of the power to make those decisions. We’ve taken a diverse society and centralized its rules of conduct, so that people thousands of miles apart must obey the same cultural norms whether they like them or not. Those whose deepest values are offended by such decisions have no choice but to choke them down. It gets harder and harder to tolerate others when you’re forced to live by their rules.
Conservatives become apoplectic while liberals — flush with victory after victory — come to regard right-wingers with undisguised contempt. The divide widens; civility is torn apart. Violence raises its ugly head.
In our haste to wield the ever-growing power of D.C. as a cudgel to compel our neighbors to bend to our preferred codes of conduct, we have pulped and discarded the founding principles of America. Those first ideas? Keep government at bay; allow local communities to decide social standards; and — most importantly — “Live and let live.” We instead have reworked the nature of federal government from a shield that protects us into a force that manages us.
The source of America’s strength has been freedom — freedom to pursue dreams; freedom to associate with others as we see fit; freedom to build prosperous lives without being set upon by thieves, foreign invaders, or bureaucrats. But today we’ve largely accepted the idea that Washington ought to oversee our lives for us, handing out entitlements with one fist while regulating our behavior with the other. In a land of widely differing lifestyles and beliefs, no good can come of this.
It’s instructive to study ancient Rome, the society America most often is compared to. During the last years of the Roman Republic, political checks and balances that had been respected for centuries suddenly were cast aside. Debate was replaced by armed gangs. Leaders used power to prevent elected officials from carrying out their duties. Those same leaders issued rulings that bypassed the legislative process. (Sound familiar?) People grew accustomed to these violations, responding with shrugs and “Maybe it’ll get better.” Instead, charismatic heads of state declared themselves rulers for life, and the Republic collapsed into a dictatorship that lasted five hundred years.
Until we restore respect for each other — until we can “live and let live” — we will remain mired in a process that’s less a democracy than a feud. And there are plenty of people with darkness in their hearts who would be happy to take our anger at each other and convert it into power for themselves.
A civil republic, or discord leading to collapse? You decide.
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(For more on this topic, see the JimBlog essay “Polarized“)