Last year just made us meaner — to shop clerks and flight attendants, teachers and nurses, election officials and our fellow citizens — really anyone forced to leave their foxholes. We fought over everything, including why we fight so much. We thought we were liberated from the pandemic, only to be tackled and dragged back into its cages; we were chased from Afghanistan; we watched lawmakers fall down and flounder as if their shoelaces were tied together. Every day was a feast day for the outrage industry, for candidates and cable networks and platform companies that we learned for years gave five times the algorithmic weight to posts that set us off. We’ve apparently developed a taste for bile.
Unfortunately, a healthy democracy depends on a measure of grace — “forbearance,” the political scientists call it, meaning respect for norms and a willingness to listen, learn and, if you lose, accept that loss and go on to fight another day. Until recently, even the dirtiest campaigns ended with the grace notes of concession and congratulation.
Those principles have been well trashed by Republicans who fell in line behind Donald Trump’s delusional claims of widespread voter fraud. So, defenders of democracy, whether from left, right or center, now confront choices they’ve not faced before: how far will they go, what alliances will they forge and what means will they embrace to counter the authoritarian measures that pulse from statehouse to statehouse.
For the aspiring autocrats, meanness is not a symptom; it’s a strategy, a weapon for driving the faceless, faithful custodians of America’s electoral machinery out and replacing them with partisan foot soldiers. The groundwork for election subversion is being laid right out in the open; come 2024, if duly elected slates of electors are rejected through entirely legal means, we can’t say we didn’t see it coming.
Democratic leaders talk about the threat as “an existential crisis” but don’t act as though they believe it. The notion that a few big legislative wins would create the momentum for democracy reform looks more and more like wishful thinking. And no matter how committed you are to providing universal pre-K or addressing climate change, none of that will happen in post-democracy America. This was the tragic trap of Joe Biden’s election: He rode to office on a longing for normal, but nothing about this climate allows government to just go on like before.
But it’s too easy to blame the president for his failure to convince millions of Americans that they’ve been systematically lied to. The responsibility also lies with other public impresarios, starting with the purveyors of misinformation. It extends to journalists who must quit their addiction to combat and snark; academics whose arrogance invites alienation; every “influencer,” whether pundits or pastors, athletes, actors, local leaders with a platform and a possibility of reaching people. Even when truth is on your side, your message will go down more easily if delivered with a measure of humility.
It’s also too easy to dismiss the other team as brainwashed cult followers or unrepentant bigots. Some portion of the public might indeed be unreachable, but it’s lazy to write off whole regions of the country as hopeless, or unworthy of engaging, because you don’t agree with their views on every issue. This is a fight for the center, and for survival. Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.) performs a daily suicide ritual that puts duty before party, accountability before ideology. The least we can do is reject the purity tests that make alliances impossible and do whatever it takes to put democracy first.
Kindness fosters at least curiosity, if not connection. If you don’t have anyone in your orbit who disagrees with your politics, vacate your bubble and go exploring. Watch and read news sources you’ve never tried before. Sample alternate information universes. The goal is not to change your mind — only to broaden it and make the people whose politics are unfathomable to you a little easier to understand.
More than 70 percent of Americans think political violence is at least somewhat likely, and a third think it might be necessary. Yet on most national values and priorities, there is broad agreement across party, race, age, gender and income. Each side dramatically overestimates the extremism of the other side.
We’ve been moving apart from each other for years, and the pandemic all but broke us. One encounter with an opponent that ends not with anger but instead with surprise, curiosity or even confusion represents a step forward. If we are to have any hope, we must relinquish the righteous thrill of unchallenged views and get reacquainted in all our complexity. We don’t need to agree on much; just on the conviction that this 245-year experiment is worth saving.