Former First Lady Michelle Obama was right when she said, “When they go low, we go high.” But, some time ago, Former Attorney General Eric Holder urged the opposite: “When they go low, we kick them,” he said, glibly. Their comments, sadly, reflect the dichotomy of political engagement in America—a dichotomy that’s ripping the democratic tapestry apart. Indeed, faith in democracy is crumbling amid increasing polarization and demonization.
Only 51 percent of Americans still have faith in a democratic system of government, according to an October 2018 Axios poll. Another Axios poll found that over 20 percent of Democrats and Republicans thought the other side was “evil.”
But there are ways to stop this thought progression in its tracks. Refusing to engage in polarizing rhetoric and anti-democratic behavior are one of the few ways to break the cycle, according to the January 2019 issue of Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, which examined political polarization in 11 different countries. One paper demonstrated that polarization:
arises when polarizing political entrepreneurs exploit existing grievances with Us vs Them discourse to mobilize voters, and opposing political elites reciprocate the polarizing tactics.
One of the paper’s authors, Dr. Jennifer L. McCoy, explained to me that the problem persists when both sides “go low,” as Obama and Holder put it. “Demonization creates the perception of threat in the out-group,” she said. “When the one group views the other as a threat they’re much more willing to accommodate or use undemocratic moves to gain power or force the other side from power.” Needless to say, this doesn’t mean parties shouldn’t stand up for what they believe. Average Americans and parties alike can and should be vigorously engaged in winning— but how they try to win can either hurt or heal.
When voters and politicians treat democracy as a complete zero-sum game, opposing sides will turn to undemocratic means to seize victory—even electing totalitarian leaders to push their agendas. The more both parties see each other as a dehumanized and wicked monolith instead of a group of individuals with complex views, the risk of political violence and civil war increases.
Thankfully, America isn’t at that point. According to another October 2018 Axios survey, polarization is being driven by a mere 14 percent of radical Americans: 8 percent far-Left and 6 percent far-Right. Most Americans, 67 percent, are an “exhausted majority” who want the polarization cycle to end.
Based on the academic literature, there are two things that can be done to halt the rise of polarization. First, Americans must stop demanding total victory over the other side, and, second, they should choose discussion over bullying—in whatever form.
Stop Demanding Total Victory
McCoy warned that parties “should not polarize around an issue just for the sake of power.” It’s a major problem as more Americans and political leaders turn every issue—even small ones—into a crisis with which to further their power. Everything becomes a battleground and no one has room for compromise. Everything becomes a battleground and no one has room for compromise. Research on inter-party conflict even shows that as polarization increases, each group closes ranks in loyalty to their side, and anyone who stays in the middle is shunned.
Calls for total victory—in which one side continuously rules and the other group is irrelevant or eliminated—damage the expectation that democracy and continued peaceful exchange of power. Democratic rules and norms must be seen as the only legitimate political game in town, and both sides should act knowing that no single party dominates forever. But when each side aims to impose its will and vision on all of society indefinitely, the incentives to play by the rules and norms collapse. As a result, both sides adopt a siege-and-victim mentality.
The exhausted majority shouldn’t accept demands from the extreme right and left that mandates that everyone must submit to one party’s top-down future. In practice, this means voting against leaders who frame their group’s fate in America as a false dichotomy of "either subjugate or be subjugated."
Be warned: Before it began, both the North and South falsely thought America’s Civil War would be over quickly. Mass political violence in today’s America would look more like politically-driven atrocities with neighbor against neighbor. Americans must not demand from each other what cannot be given, threatening each other’s right to live as they see fit. The Republic is in danger when extreme partisans insist that their political vision is the vision that all Americans must bend to permanently.
Talk to Each Other, Don’t Bully Each Other
Research shows that trying to browbeat someone into agreement with you doesn’t work. Ad hominems and attacking someone’s worldview won’t convince people, but respectful discussions letting them save face often can.
The majority of Americans can reduce the political temperature by having decent conversations across the aisle.
On social media, too many friendships are broken by careless words and behavior that wouldn’t be tolerated in person. That’s why the exhausted majority should not emulate the extreme words and deeds of the radical 14 percent of Americans.
In her paper, McCoy wrote, “When opponents reciprocate with derogatory anti-populist language, the polarizing dynamic spirals.” After all, anyone who’s been on social media or read the comment sections of newspapers knows this from personal experience. Anytime someone gets into an argument, especially online, it is easy to fall into name-calling and ad-hominems. People do this all too often, even when they know each other.
The majority of Americans can reduce the political temperature by having decent conversations across the aisle, and there are organizations working to help those along. One is called AllSides, a bipartisan news outlet and educational nonprofit. They implemented a school program called Mismatch, which teaches media literacy to students from seventh grade through college, along with respectful dialogue, critical thinking, and social-emotional learning.
Mismatch also includes online, guided dialogues between students who disagree on a political issue. One encouraging result is that 92 percent of students who tried Mismatch said they better understood another person or perspective. Julie Mastrine, Marketing Director of AllSides, explained over the phone how even her own views have changed. “These folks weren’t evil or bad, we’re just different on the solutions and had our values weighted differently.”
The United States does not have to slide slowly into political violence. The republic can be maintained—the majority just needs to act.
Another organization, Living Room Conversations (LRC), aims to promote Americans to have their own in-person moderated discussions, using prompts and a set of agreed-upon rules. LRC gives users conversation guides on difficult topics such as the 2018 midterm results or hot-button social issues. The idea is to help people meet in person (or online) to have a facilitated discussion and stop talking past each other.
“Adversarial solutions are simply not good enough,” LRC’s co-founder Joan Blades explained over email. “I started Living Room Conversations with a diverse set of partners because I believe we need to be able to work together with everyone’s best ideas in the room to solve the most challenging issues we face.” Joan would know—she’s the progressive founder of MoveOn.org but works with conservatives such as John Gable, who used to work for the Republican National Committee on political campaigns. She and John co-founded AllSides to help people break their political and media bubbles and fight polarization.
It’s said that when Ben Franklin left the Constitutional Convention, he was approached by citizens curious over which form of the government the delegates had on settled for the new nation. “A republic,” he said, “if you can keep it.”
But that’s not something we can do until we lay down our weapons and try to see through the eyes of our opponents. And the majority of us have had enough of polarization. The United States does not have to slide slowly into political violence. The republic can be maintained—the majority just needs to act. There will always be some bullies who don’t believe in democracy and the peaceful conversations that sustain it, but the rest of us can do what’s right and refuse to play along.