If there is one thing about which Americans of all political persuasions agree, it is that the electorate is dramatically polarized. Our differences are so profound that a one recent poll found parents more accepting of a child’s inter-racial or inter-religious marriage than a marriage to a member of the opposing political party.
A commenter recently made me aware of an effort to bridge our political abyss. The organization is called “Braver Angels,” and its website explains its purpose:
The days after the election could begin a dark time of polarization in the land—unless we act together to make it otherwise. That’s where the With Malice Toward None initiative comes in. The goal is to create a space for people to deal with their emotions (positive and negative), to build our capacities for working together to address our common challenges, and to commit ourselves to a renewed citizenship.
The organization has mounted what appears to be a sincere and well-meaning effort at understanding and rapprochement. I have not been privy to any of the discussion sessions, and if they have managed to moderate some of the animus that definitely exists between right and left wing voters, more power to them, but I don’t hold out much hope for a kumbaya outcome, for reasons I have previously explained.
The problem is the nature, rather than the extent, of America’s current divisions.
Discussions of policy differences can be very productive–not only generating increased understanding of where the “other guy” is coming from, but enabling reasonable compromises. I am a big proponent of mass transit, but I have engaged in informative discussions with people who are leery of its appeal to sufficient numbers of riders. I am firmly opposed to gerrymandering, but I understand those who argue that the problem is really the country’s “big sort” into urban Democratic areas and rural Republican precincts. I’m pro-choice, and I’ve had civil conversations with at least some people adamantly opposed to abortion.
When our political discussions address these and numerous other policy differences, I absolutely agree that they should be encouraged, and that deepened understandings of others’ positions can result.
The problem today–at least as I see it–is that Americans are not arguing about policy. We aren’t quibbling about what the evidence says about job losses when the minimum wage is raised, or about the specifics of needed immigration reforms. Instead, our truly profound differences are about values.
It is simply not possible–at least for me–to “understand and appreciate” the worldview of someone who is just fine with caging brown children. I cannot overlook the hypocrisy of “family values” voters who are ardent Trump supporters despite his sexual and marital behaviors, or of the “good Christians” who enthusiastically endorse White Nationalism and Trump’s belief that there are “good people” among self-identified Nazis. I cannot imagine an amicable conversation with QAnon folks who believe that Democrats are sexually abusing and then eating small children.
Interestingly, in 2012, The Atlantic reported on a team of academic researchers who have collaborated at a website — “www.YourMorals.org” — designed to ferret out value differences, rather than focusing on policy disputes.
Their findings show how profound the chasm is on values questions between liberals and conservatives. Generally speaking, not only do liberals place high importance on peace, mutual understanding, and empathy for those who have difficulty prevailing in competition, they demonstrate concern for equality of outcome, while conservatives place pointedly low or negative importance on such values. On the other side, conservatives believe that the use of force is a legitimate method of conflict resolution across a range of domains, from war to law enforcement to the discipline of children. Conservatives are more likely to believe in an “eye for an eye,” are more likely to respect received tradition, and are overwhelmingly committed to the proposition that individuals are responsible for their own economic condition — all views rejected by liberals.
The article was titled “Conservatives are from Mars, Liberals are from Venus.”
Liberals who want to reach out and pursue understanding with today’s Republicans undoubtedly believe that not everyone in the GOP endorses the Trump administration’s racism, lack of integrity and contempt for the common good. What they fail to recognize is the significant exodus of reasonable, genuinely conservative voters from the GOP over the past four years. It isn’t simply the “Never Trumpers”–although they symbolize that exodus.
As my youngest son says, the people who are left in today’s Republican Party either share Trump’s racism, or don’t consider it disqualifying. I think the likelihood of finding common ground with such people–the likelihood of singing kumbaya with them–is vanishingly small.