To Cure What Ails Us

Our polarization runs deep. How do we get our politics to a better place after Trump is gone?

I remember coming back to the United States from a trip abroad right at the tail end of the saga over Donald Trump’s Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh. It had been a work trip, so I hadn’t been following the testimonies of Kavanaugh and Christine Blasey Ford very carefully. My plane touched down a few days before the final vote in the Senate, which ended up breaking on strict party lines, with Senator Joe Manchin III of West Virginia the only Democrat crossing the aisle to confirm.

More memorable than the politics was the public debate. Like unexpectedly walking into a sauna, it was suffocating. While social media was suffused with partisan emotion and was predictably unreasonable, the moment was best captured by what was happening to Never Trump conservatives: many seem to have rediscovered their party colors. Bret Stephens’ column in the New York Times, titled “For Once, I’m Grateful for Trump,” is a good stand-in for several conversations I had with right-leaning friends that week. “The other side had gone too far,” they said. “I don’t like Trump at all, but I’m not with these people either.”

With the passing of Ruth Bader Ginsburg almost a full two years later, the country finds itself in an even more fraught situation. Though writers like Stephens have not repeated their performance this time around, instead urging Republican senators like Mitt Romney to respect the precedent set by Mitch McConnell during the closing months of the Obama presidency and not vote on the candidate until after the next president is chosen, it’s striking how little such pleas have resonated. Senators Lisa Murkowski and Susan Collins aside, the entire Republican Party seems to have fallen in line to support Trump’s nominee, with little regard for the institutional consequences such a move could provoke.

It remains an open question whether this will boost turnout for Trump himself, but it’s possible to assume that it might. High enthusiasm for Trump himself as a candidate is only at 46 percent among those likely to vote for him, according to the poll aggregator Five Thirty Eight. It could be that an issue that allows partisans to re-connect with their partisan identity despite their reservations about Trump’s character and competence could be a boon for him. Should this dynamic prove decisive in November, partisanship—more specifically, negative partisanship, where your loyalty to the in-group is defined by opposition to the out-group—will have delivered the presidency to Trump a second time in a row.

Negative partisanship—also sometimes called affective political polarization—seems to be at the core of what ails us as a country, and it has been on the rise for decades. Polling studies focusing on the phenomenon pop up regularly, and seem to indicate that things are getting worse. An often-cited statistic is that in 1960, around 5 percent of partisans said they would be unhappy if their child married someone from the other party. By 2010, a study found that the share had increased to half of Republicans and a third of Democrats. The mutual dislike has only been increasing since then, and appears to have gotten more uniform across both parties.

Attempts to analyze what is going on largely fall into two major camps. The first is that there exists a silent, increasingly frustrated “sensible center” that only needs to be appealed to for a new party or coalition to dominate American politics for a long time. The argument comes in many forms, and has been the bread-and-butter of newspaper punditry for years. But social science findings—such as the widely-cited “Hidden Tribes” report, published in 2018—exist to back it up, too. Part of the evidence presented is that parties’ own positive programs are rarely fully satisfying to the voters, who are less politically engaged overall, and are, indeed, repelled and discouraged from participating more given the growing polarization reflected through politicians in Washington and an increasingly toxic and partisan media. The solution to the problem is to simply offer up the kind of centrist policies that these voters would like to see more of, and the problem is at least mitigated.

The second sees the problem through the other end of the telescope. It takes it for granted that irreconcilable political differences divide the nation—differences, indeed, that some argue are grounded in fundamentally divergent sets of moral intuitions—and instead looks at what has changed institutionally. Lee Drutman’s recent Breaking the Two-Party Doom Loop makes the case that flaws in the design of our democracy have made it completely rational for parties to sort themselves into ideologically pure voting blocks. Exhorting parties to play for the center makes no sense, since if there was an easy “win” to be had there, someone would have capitalized on it. The solution, then, is to change the system in ways that will encourage new alternatives to emerge. One such proposal, Ranked-Choice Voting, has been written about extensively in these pages by Larry Diamond.

report from one of the various initiatives trying to understand the problem, FixUS, seems to have confirmed that both analyses seem to be at least partially right. The group undertook a “roadshow” across the United States in 2018, speaking to voters from all walks of life in both red and blue states. The fatigue among voters, they found, is real, and there is a palpable desire across the country for a government that simply works better. At the same time, there seems to have been little in the way of easy solutions that came up during the discussion.

Paul Stebbins, one of the founders of FixUS, told me that there was a “real market for change out there.” Describing himself as an amalgam of a Jacob Javits Republican and a Lloyd Bentsen Democrat, Stebbins became interested in polarization as he worked on initiatives to get the United States’ debt under control. The false choices being offered to him by the parties on just this one issue hinted at a deeper problem. As he went around the country talking to people, he developed a more profound sense that the system itself is broken. Having published its report, FixUS continues to run events that seek to ameliorate the polarization by putting concerned citizens face-to-face, and getting them to talk to each other—a place where conversations are happening in calm ways. But Stebbins himself seems to be under no illusions that this will be enough, or that a singular policy platform exists that could bring the country together.

Seymour Martin Lipset correctly noted that division and polarization, and the competition between parties that it breeds, are the lifeblood of a healthy democracy. Competition acts as a transmission mechanism, allowing a democracy to be properly responsive to the will of its constituents. But there is a resulting dark side to this. “Without consensus—a political system allowing the peaceful ‘play’ of power, the adherence by the ‘outs’ to decisions made by the ‘ins,’ and the recognition by the ‘ins’ of the rights of the ‘outs’— there can be no democracy.” Elsewhere, Lipset notes that consensus is easier to obtain when the issues at stake are economic. Bartering over goodies comes naturally to people. Bartering over values, however, is a non-starter, and leads to intractable conflicts. And fights over incommensurate values often spring up as groups start manifesting separate identities.

Having been born in the Balkans, I find this last facet of our fight particularly troubling. The case of Bosnia is instructive. Though the institutions in Bosnia were poorly designed and implemented after the dissolution of Yugoslavia, an even more destructive force has been the erosion and continued undermining of a cohesive Bosnian civic identity that has continued well after the killing stopped. If, as a state, you don’t have a coherent overarching identity undergirding everything, and if politics becomes dominated by sub-identities, democracy simply doesn’t work. And while Bosniaks are no longer literally at each others’ throats, its failed, sclerotic, stalled democracy is both sad to behold and vulnerable to disruption and catastrophic collapse.

The United States, thankfully, has not yet been balkanized and indeed is worlds away from the kind of toxic dynamic that tore the former Yugoslavia apart. Still, as polarization worsens and a kind of atomizing identity politics tightens its grip on both the Left and the Right, it’s worth remembering that “democracy” can’t solve these kinds of problems, and that in fact it is likely exacerbating them.

That’s the frame through which best to watch the upcoming elections. Polls show that, Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s succession aside, Joe Biden is still a strong favorite to win, and may even win convincingly. That the American people could potentially be brought to something like a consensus opinion by the poor performance, corrupt character, and general unfitness of Donald J. Trump should not lull us into complacency. As Stebbins told me, “Even if Trump goes, Biden has no magic wand” to make our divisions disappear. There’s a lot more work that needs to be done.

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