Liberal friends took me to task for my last posting, “It’s how you say it,” accusing me of over-generalizing, failing to cite examples of media bias against Trump and his administration, and basically sounding like a Trump apologist. True, it would have been more accurate to say about media bias that I see why Trump supporters believe it, rather than “I agree,” but at its heart the post was not intended as a political critique, but rather a lamentation…a plea.
Seven years ago, when Bea Larsen and I initiated a bi-partisan project, Beyond Civility, with the goal of improving communication for effective governance, we thought the polarization and gridlock in Washington might be a passing thing, a pendulum swing. We thought by rallying local civic leaders around shared responsibilities for inclusive policy making, by teaching negotiation and problem-solving techniques learned from mediation, and by providing opportunities for leaders to build relationships across political and ideological aisles, paths might be found around the partisan logjams afflicting national government. While I believe our local leadership today is committed to effective communication, the breakdown at the national level has worsened and appears to be defying all efforts at repair.
Explanations and blame for this breakdown are familiar enough—ideologically siloed communities, fact challenged social media, readily available biased news sources feeding confirmation biases, etc., but the consequences, I think, are approaching an alarming tipping point. It is not hyperbole to warn of threats to America’s experiment in democratic self-governance. Erosion of democracy globally by leaders limiting democratic processes and ruling more unilaterally are documented in a 2018 report from Varieties of Democracy (V-Dem), an international project based at the University of Gothenberg in Sweden. They note a precipitous drop in the U.S., based largely on experts’ assessment of the ability of Congress and the courts to restrain the executive branch.
Conservatives mock and dismiss liberal protests, righteously and accurately claiming they have achieved their success through the electoral process. “Elections have consequences.” But they did so by voting to recklessly crash established orders, and now the original conservative agenda is being overtaken by authoritarians and populists who show little or no respect for democratic governance. From this wreckage Americans seem to be moving inexorably toward a kind of civil war in which hope for collaborative resolution is abandoned, sides are taken, and the only outcomes imagined are winning and losing. Perhaps physical violence will be avoided, but the emotional and social violence of this conflict could be just as destructive.
For someone like me who believed adoption of the American Constitution was a brilliant benchmark in the long history of humans’ struggle to balance security with freedom, and who has devoted a life’s work to improving government and to resolving deep conflict constructively, our President’s attack on democratic institutions, both national and international, his purposeful stoking of division and conflict among citizens, and the deepening deterioration of civil society, is heartbreaking.
But there is something bigger and more worrisome than my hurt feelings: If we, fellow citizens, are unwilling or unable to collectively govern ourselves, who will govern us?
The well laid, well funded, and successfully executed plans that aligned the interests of wealthy libertarians, evangelicals, social conservatives, the Republican Party, and perhaps Russian oligarchs has succeeded, maybe beyond their expectations, maybe even beyond what many of them think is healthy. Surely they know a minority cannot dictate to an angry majority for long in a functioning democracy. Are they prepared to rule by force? One can imagine responsible conservatives telling themselves if things get too bad they can reassert control; but can they? Unfortunately, it appears the benefits to each group are still sufficient to justify their allowing this downward spiral to continue.
I lament the growing hatred of all-things-Trump not because anger is not warranted, it certainly is. It’s not because progressive values of equality and inclusiveness aren’t worth fighting for, they certainly are. It’s not that passion and strong emotions are negative, they are not. Rather, I mourn and fear an abandonment of civil society.
The bottom line of “civility” in politics for me is not whether we debate politely but whether we debate for the purpose of governing ourselves as a whole people. When we stop considering our fellow citizens’ values and interests, we have already given up trying to govern together. Once we objectify, dehumanize, and declare war on each other, we sacrifice fundamental national ideals and promises we’ve pledged to stand for– e pluribus unum, “one nation, indivisible,” and equality and justice for all.
So how do liberals fight what looks like a cynical, destructive, and overwhelming force in order to preserve a country we can all call our own? Along with many others, I’m thinking hard about that. What I do know is that anger does not change minds, hatred is not a strategy, and extremism begets extremism; and I believe that once we declare half our fellow citizens the enemy, we’ve lost what we’re fighting for.