As he left office in 1796, George Washington warned of the “baneful effects of the spirit of party.” He linked partisanship to the “spirit of revenge,” warning that it can lead to a “frightful despotism” built upon “the ruins of public liberty.”
Washington must be turning over in his grave as the city named in his honor devolves into partisan conflict. Democrats accuse President Donald Trump of lawlessness. Republicans storm the impeachment inquiry. The slippery slopes of our constitutional crisis are greased with partisanship. Every day we become more polarized.
A recent book by Thomas Carothers and Andrew O’Donohue concludes, “polarization is tearing at the seams of democracies throughout the world.” Polarization has many causes. Media silos portray different worlds. Big money pushes the agenda. And the two-party system narrows our imaginations.
But even as the partisans battle, large numbers of us simply change the channel. The media shows us a world of Republicans and Democrats engaged in combat. But the largest “party” in the U.S. is the independents. According to the Pew Center and the Gallup Poll, around 40% of Americans are not affiliated with either major party.
While the independents look the other way, partisan distrust grows. The Public Religion Resource Institute reports that 82% of Republicans believe that the Democratic Party “has been taken over by socialists” and 80% of Democrats think that the Republican Party “has been taken over by racists.” A Pew Center report from 2018 concluded, “Majorities of both Democrats (64%) and Republicans (56%) say the opposing party has little or no commitment to fair and accurate elections.”
Polarization accelerates as the parties become segregated demographically. The Republican Party is becoming whiter and more Christian, while the Democratic Party is less white and more non-Christian. PRRI reports that 69% of Republicans identify as “white Christian,” while only 30% of Democrats do. And 28% of Democrats are not religiously affiliated compared with only 13% of Republicans.
The danger of polarization is clear. If each party believes the other is morally corrupt, compromise is impossible. Republicans claim that Democrats are staging a coup. Democrats claim that Republicans are backing a corrupt and lawless tyrant. This kind of talk delegitimizes government itself.
History provides cautionary tales of polarization run amok. The U.S. fought a civil war in the 1860s. In the 1960s there were riots in the streets. The current president has warned of a civil war if he were impeached.
Given the long history of polarization, the current crisis may simply be part of the normal life of a democracy. Liberty produces diversity. When we are free to think, argue and affiliate, our opinions will diverge and we will sort ourselves into groups. The dream of e pluribus unum appears to run aground on the fact of freedom.
But diversity and polarization are not the same thing. Diversity means that there are many different opinions and identities. Polarization reduces this multiplicity to two rival camps: “us” and “them.”
This tendency toward reductivism is the big problem. To say that Republicans are racists or that Democrats are socialists is to make sweeping generalizations that deny the reality of our diversity. The two-party system denies human complexity. We are not easily categorized. We have multiple allegiances. Our values shift over time. And often we are internally conflicted.
An obvious solution to partisan conflict would be to develop some other parties. But that is unlikely to happen in a world in which the two main parties take up all of the oxygen. So another solution is to develop a more expansive and democratic spirit.
The great poet of democracy, Walt Whitman, saw the United States as a “teeming nation of nations.” Whitman saw the democratic soul as capacious and complex. He said, “I am large, I contain multitudes.”
To avoid polarization we must embrace liberty and individuality. Partisanship keeps us confined within groups that are defined in opposition to each other. But human beings are better and more interesting than that. The cure for polarization is to re-open our imaginations.
Let’s listen more carefully to each other. Let’s look for what unites us. Let’s celebrate diversity that defies categorization. And let’s admit that each of us contains a multitude.