Tuesday, June 20, 2017

The Hate Debate

In the wake of last week's tragic shooting at a congressional baseball practice, we have been regularly reminded how divided we have become as a society, as social, cultural, and class divisions increasingly seem to replicate our toxic political conflicts and/or are replicated in them. Angst about a "climate of hate" is not exactly new. For example, I can well remember in the aftermath of President Kennedy's assassination much commentary and sermonizing about the climate of hate in certain parts of the country - notably the climate of right-wing hatred in Dallas, which was quite real. (That said, the actual assassin, while apparently politically motivated, came from the other end of the political spectrum.)

Between then and now, the country went through the intense ideological divisions of the 1960s and 1970s. Those were the days of racial riots in many major cities, the Chicago Convention riots, the shootings at Kent State, and the short-lived but scary history of home-grown terrorist groups like the Weather Underground and the SLA. Compared to those days, one could plausibly argue that we are living in a more peaceful society today. On the other hand, as has often been noted, mainstream politicians in the 1960s and 1970s were still predominantly centrist, still got along with each other for the most part, still governed between campaigns, and did not advocate or endorse extremist attitudes. By the 1990s, professional politicians seemed to have become much more ideologically polarized, as political parties became increasingly ideologically coherent. As the political class divided more sharply, however, it still seemed to many as if society as a whole remained less divided and polarized.

That, however, no longer seems to be the case. The much commented upon reduction in inter-personal and non-political interaction among members of Congress since the Gingrich era seems increasingly to have been replicated in American society as a whole, as neighborhoods and even religious congregations have become more politically homogeneous, And just as Americans are less likely to interact socially with - or even to know - people of a different political party, they have also self-segregated in terms of their sources of news and their basic beliefs about what represents reality. (We can thank Talk Radio, Cable news, and finally Social Media for that!) Many commentators have become fond of comparing survey results from 1960, when barely 5% of Republicans and 4% of Democrats claimed they would object if their son or daughter married a member of the opposite party with the more recent radical increases in those percentages!

Related to that - and most ominously of all - partisans seem increasingly motivated by dislike for the other party than by enthusiasm for their own party. Even among so-called "Independents," most of whom in practice tend to lean one way or the other, it is estimated that some two-thirds tend to lean in the direction they do more motivated by negative dislike of one party rather than by positive enthusiasm for the other.

In a recent article in National Review ("We're Not in a Civil War, but We Are Drifting Toward Divorce), David French argued that our now well established national political polarization "is more akin to the beginning stages of a national divorce than it is to a civil war." He suggests that our national division is becoming "so profound that Americans may not have the desire to fight to stay together." French highlights the now familiar data about how Democrats and Republicans have come to dislike each other more and more, while increasingly living "separate lives - living in separate locations, enjoying separate media, and holding separate religious beliefs."

"A civil war," French contends, "results when the desire for unification and domination overrides the desire for separation and self-determination." In our contemporary society, however, he believes "there are simply too many differences and too many profound disagreements for one side of the other to exercise true political dominance." 

For French, this becomes an excuse to argue for a re-invigorated commitment to federalism. (He is a senior writer at National Review, after all!) But, setting aside his ideologically preferred but problematic solution, I think his diagnosis describes our dilemma quite well. As a nation, we are drifting farther and farther apart, not just politically but much more fundamentally morally and culturally (which very much includes economic class as a factor). And it is very hard even to envision how in this age of cable TV and social media we can ever come together again as a coherent community - or whether eventually we will really even want to.

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