The pandemic and the economy. Race and immigration. Health care and climate change. Guns and abortion. Justice and inequality. And, of course, the almighty Supreme Court. These are the issues in our Nov. 3 election, and the issues, we are told, are supposed to matter.
But what if American voters, and 2020 voters in particular, are animated by baser impulses that are far more timeless, such as hatred, tribalism and exclusion? What if more than wanting their candidates to win, more than hoping to see their preferences implemented as policy and enshrined in law, they mainly want the other side to suffer a humiliating defeat?
The growing polarization of the United States into a nation torn by partisan identities is one of the legacies of the Trump presidency, even if it began long ago. What Bill Bishop, writing in the 2000s, called “The Big Sort” was a decades-long process of clustering by geography, income and culture, producing homogenous enclaves with self-reinforcing and mutually opposing worldviews. Only under President Trump, however, did polarization morph into an overt campaigning and governing strategy, one the country has fully embraced as party affiliation increasingly tracks divides of culture and religion, race and place. Here, there are no win-win outcomes. Each camp finds vindication in the struggles of its rival, preferring results that are worse for all if they manage to boost the home team’s relative advantage and magnify the differences between the sides.
We’re way past bowling alone; now, we’re grabbing that bowling ball and looking for something to smash.
A decade after Bishop’s work, multiple volumes in the Trump years have chronicled America’s descent into this negative partisanship, a condition in which opposition overwhelms affirmation. Recent books such as Lilliana Mason’s “Uncivil Agreement,” Amy Chua’s “Political Tribes,” Ezra Klein’s “Why We’re Polarized,” David French’s “Divided We Fall” and Pete Buttigieg’s “Trust” — and that is just a sampling of the subgenre — explain how the adjective in “United States” has come to seem aspirational, even vestigial. “More than simply disagreeing, Democrats and Republicans are feeling like very different kinds of people,” Mason writes, while French worries that our very political and geographic union can no longer be taken for granted.
The authors hazard proposals for how to break free from this cycle in which a polarized electorate compels politicians to campaign in more polarized ways, thus entrenching voters even further. Above all, many urge a restoration of citizenship as an overriding American identity, even as they recognize the difficulty of getting there when the gaps between us are enduring and expanding. And the popular, political and intellectual fixation on Trump himself — and the divisions he so relishes and deepens — may make it harder still. In a country where virtually all have lined up either as Trump’s resistance or his base, it seems almost countercultural to suggest that these are not our only options, that this man need not remain the sole reference point defining us.
The challenge of a nation defined by ideas is that ideas can lose their appeal, their seeming relevance, even their understood meaning. “The great Enlightenment principles of modernity — liberalism, secularism, rationality, equality, free markets — do not provide the kind of tribal group identity that human beings crave,” Chua, a professor at Yale Law School, writes in “Political Tribes.” And they crave it above all when they feel threatened by ascendant forces in the culture, in the campaign, on the job. “Today, no group in America feels comfortably dominant,” Chua warns. “Every group feels attacked, pitted against other groups not just for jobs and spoils but for the right to define the nation’s identity. In these conditions, democracy devolves into zero-sum group competition.”
It can be the fear of losing status in the face of the country’s racial and demographic transformations; or it can be the anger at never receiving enough status to avoid the threat of harm, harassment, even death at the hands of an unfair justice system. The cultural and political trenches of the Trump years — whether #MeToo and Black Lives Matter, the resurgence of racist forces, or the horrors at the southern border — all intensify the sense of identity, Klein contends, of belonging to one camp and confronting the other. “There is nothing that makes us identify with our groups so strongly as the feeling that the power we took for granted may soon be lost or the injustices we’ve long borne may soon be rectified,” he writes.
Trump instinctively grasps the power of these sentiments and has aggravated them whenever possible, from the birtherism lie to the demonization of Mexican immigrants to the specter of Cory Booker overrunning White suburbia. Trump’s disregard for conservative mantras of family values and fiscal rectitude is often held up as proving the hypocrisy of his party, but it merely proves that in America today, identity beats policy. “Partisans dislike each other to a degree that cannot be explained by policy disagreements alone,” Mason emphasizes. “When partisanship implicitly evokes racial, religious, and other social identities … it [is] far easier for individual partisans to dehumanize their political opponents.”
In this context, efforts to unmake the Affordable Care Act or squeeze in one more associate justice are not just about the policies or principles at stake but about defeating and demoralizing the other side. It’s owning the libs as domestic policy.
In his 2016 campaign, Trump was “a master marketer who astutely read the market,” in Klein’s words, but he did not have to be the one to serve it. “Eventually, someone was going to come along and give the Republican base what they wanted,” Klein writes. And Trump has done it again in his latest campaign, running not on a proposed second-term agenda (he has none) but, in the words of National Review’s Rich Lowry, as a crude insult to the cultural left. “To put it in blunt terms, for many people, he’s the only middle finger available,” Lowry writes.
In “Divided We Fall,” French identifies a shared core in the nation’s competing narratives, a “burning conviction that the other side doesn’t just want its opponents to lose political races, but rather wishes for them to exist in a state of permanent, dangerous (perhaps even deadly) subordination.” For Christian conservatives, this fear manifests itself in any perceived threats to religious liberty; for progressives, it is evident in any possible erosion of abortion rights. French imagines two secessionist scenarios — a “Calexit” in which California secedes from the union over gun laws, a “Texit” in which the Lone Star State departs over abortion disputes — both of which seem eerily plausible. “We cannot assume that a continent-sized, multi-ethnic, multi-faith democracy can remain united forever,” he concludes.
Trump’s rhetoric and policies pick at the scabs of all such divides, never allowing them to heal. His constant dismissal of the plight of “Democrat-run” cities or states during the coronavirus pandemic, for example, makes clear that our president already believes he governs a torn nation. “Not my president” is not just a resistance cry; it’s what Trump himself decided long ago.
‘Authors write whole books about devilishly complex social problems and then pretend they can be solved in a few bullet points,” Klein, editor at large of Vox, admits in his own book. “I have more confidence in my diagnosis than my prescription.” So, is there a way to even mitigate America’s crippling polarization? The writers suggest possible solutions, though not with enormous certitude — The Big Sort Of.
Mason, a University of Maryland government professor whose 2018 book is cited frequently in the later volumes, posits that some overriding national goal could unite Americans — except she has trouble imagining one that works. Chua, who contends that both the bigotry of right-wing tribalism and the political correctness of left-wing tribalism are gnawing at our bonds, worries that there is “nearly no one standing up … for an American identity that transcends and unites the identities of all the country’s many subgroups.” She concludes by arguing that we need “one-on-one human engagement” and praises those Americans who “empathize with each other’s humanity,” but is concerned that seeing each other as one people may just be impossible “in our time of rage.”
For former Democratic presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg, our polarization is a crisis of trust — not just trust in one another but in our political institutions, too. “We live in a country whose most radical founding premise was that people could be trusted to govern themselves — and that the people, trusted in this way, would produce leaders who themselves are worthy of trust,” he writes. Because American identity is civic rather than ethnic, a sense of personal trust and mutual belonging is indispensable.
To strengthen that trust, Buttigieg calls for a voluntary civilian service program that would put millions of diverse Americans in conversation; a more egalitarian system of taxation; and a truth commission that can confront America’s racist history and present, because racism is the country’s “most pernicious form of distrust.” He also urges a more aggressive use of constitutional amendments to end the electoral college, pass the Equal Rights Amendment and reform campaign financing. Buttigieg envisions a “new American social democracy” as ambitious as the New Deal and the civil rights era combined; the alternative, he writes, is a continued national decline.
Klein does not imagine we can rid ourselves of political polarization, nor would we entirely want to; some degree of polarization is needed if the parties are to offer competing and coherent platforms. He merely wants to help us live with it. To that end, he would eliminate the debt ceiling and the filibuster, approve statehood for D.C. and Puerto Rico, and yes, also do away with the “archaic” electoral college. He doesn’t see such reforms as revolutionary; they would merely insulate government operations against the most serious risks of polarization, he writes. (The debt ceiling, for instance, allows the creditworthiness of the American government to be held hostage by a minority party, while a popular vote would compel the parties to seek broad, moderating coalitions.) Even so, it is not hard to imagine such reforms — as well as Buttigieg’s — falling into what, in French’s analysis, would feel to the right like an effort at cultural and political dominance. That doesn’t make them wrong, but it does make them hard.
French, for his part, envisions a new federalism — “the eighteenth-century solution to our twenty-first-century problem,” he writes — such that progressives can build progressive communities and conservatives can build conservative ones, in a live-and-let-live scenario. This is a path toward eliminating polarization by, in a sense, allowing it: “The rebirth of federalism involves standing by and consenting to your ideological opponents in different jurisdictions enacting policies and practices you may despise and consider unwise or unjust.” With the full protection of the Bill of Rights, he argues, neither progressive nor conservative states could oppress dissenters in their ranks. French calls this a system of “protected customization.”
He’s not calling on us to agree — just to continue disagreeing without destroying ourselves. But even that may be too much right now. “In the short run … a return to federalism is not on the table,” French laments. “The drive for domination is still too strong, and the hopes for domination are still high.” Instead, he calls for “a renewed commitment to courage and character” on the part of the nation’s political leaders.
Which brings us back to that election on Tuesday. It is tempting to conclude that Trump, with his divisiveness and his indifference to the needs of the nation as a whole, is a prime mover behind our polarization and that his departure could ease our tensions, could take us beyond a world where even the hat you choose to wear — or the mask you don’t — becomes a marker of political identity. But it is also possible that, by bifurcating our disagreements, Trump is papering over them; by simplifying our discourse into pro-Trump or against him, he is inhibiting the more meaningful and painful debates before us.
Without him, Americans would suddenly have to wrestle with everything else that keeps us apart, with all the discord and estrangement within and between our parties, movements, cultures and regions. It would be messier but perhaps more honest, more consistent with the American story, that relentless fight to determine who we are. The Trump-induced holding pattern in which we now live — with fantasies of after the election or after the pandemic so dominant — will not last forever. Soon we’ll have to find out if Trump is indeed the only middle finger available to us, or if it’s just that the middle finger is the only one we still remember how to use.