Americans Can't Stand Each Other, So Let's Stop Forcing Our Preferences on One Another

If you want to avoid conflict among hostile groups, decentralize power-preferably to individuals.


Emilee Mcgovern/ZUMA Press/Newscom

As a display of Americans' seemingly growing intolerance for one another, last week presented something of a perfect storm. The flash career of a prominent conservative writer at The Atlantic, the seeming endorsement by several tech executives of one-party rule, and the president waging war against businesses to punish media companies that criticize him provide the latest suggestions that some Americans don't play well together and should probably withdraw to separate corners.

Kevin Williamson's mayfly tenure at The Atlantic represented a rare and aborted effort by a mainstream media organ to connect with ideas with which many of its readers are unfamiliar. Williamson is "an excellent reporter who covers parts of the country, and aspects of American life, that we don't yet cover comprehensively," editor-in-chief Jeffrey Goldberg told staffers in an internal email.

But maybe people prefer that some things remain mysteries. At least, that seemed to be the case once the blunt and provocative Kevin Williamson was revealed to actually believe that aborting a pregnancy should be treated as homicide, and subject to the applicable penalties—potentially including capital punishment. When Goldberg discovered that Williamson's hard-core social conservative opinions "did, in fact, represent his carefully considered views," Williamson was fired.

Exposure to opposing views can be scary for some—so scary, in fact, that prominent tech gurus think perhaps we should sideline them entirely somehow.

"We can't have one step forward, one step back every time an administration changes. One side or the other has to win," Peter Leyden, CEO of Reinvent Media, insisted recently. Leyden puts forward California, where the GOP has collapsed and been swept aside by a nearly one-party state, as the ideal outcome for "the new American civil war."

Leyden doesn't fret that the disappearance of one of America's two major parties would turn democracy into a sham, because in the California primary system "the voters still got a choice between, say, a more progressive candidate and a moderate candidate…who almost all operate within a worldview that shares much common ground." The rest of the country should follow California's lead on embracing one-party rule, Leyden opined.

Evan Williams, cheif executive at Medium and the former head of Twitter, called this an "interesting take." Current Twitter chief Jack Dorsey named it a "great read." Sure—if you're into creepy bedtime stories.

While we're on creepy, let's talk about President Trump's battle against the Washington Post via Amazon. By all accounts, the nation's chief executive has declared war against the online retail giant to punish the company's CEO, Jeff Bezos, for his ownership of the Trump-critical Washington Post.

"Mr. Trump sees Mr. Bezos's hand in newspaper coverage he dislikes and is lashing out at Amazon as a proxy," according to the Wall Street Journal. Given my own family's long experience with Trump's thin skin (he threatened to destroy my father over the publication of an unauthorized biography), it's easy to imagine the guy acting on his own intolerance of criticism (as well as the example set by his White House predecessors) to attack his political opponents.

And why shouldn't we attack and try to sideline one-another at this point in our mutual loathing? Americans increasingly want very different things from their political system. "[I]n recent years, the gaps on several sets of political values in particular—including measures of attitudes about the social safety net, race and immigration—have increased dramatically," Pew Research Center reported last October. Just two weeks ago, Pew added that while Democrats and Republicans embrace their political loyalties out of support for their preferred policies, "sizable majorities in both parties cite the other party's harmful policies as a major factor."

No wonder, as a CBS News poll found in February, "the percentage of Democrats and Republicans holding negative views of the opposing party has grown in recent years." The same poll found that about half of us have a difficult time talking to people with different political views.

Americans have long been voting for different lifestyles with their feet, and those lifestyles correlate with different views of the world. A majority of Republicans (65 percent) "say they would rather live in a community where houses are larger and farther apart and where schools and shopping are not nearby," polling finds. Meanwhile, most Democrats (61 percent) "prefer smaller houses within walking distance of schools and shopping."

Which is to say, the stereotypes may be largely correct—urban liberals are facing off against rural-to-suburban conservatives. And once settled in their varying homes and kicking back to catch up on the day's events, lefties and righties strongly disagree on which news sources are worthy of their attention—or whether the media should be trusted at all.

If you increasingly disagree with your political opponents, don't like them, rarely encounter them, get your information from different sources, and can barely speak with them during scarce meetings, it really does become tempting to treat them as the "other." In the modern context, that means shaming, muzzling, punishing, and trying to side-line them completely so you can force your preferences down their throats.

But why treat every political preference as a collective endeavor that must be imposed on the unwilling? This country started as a federal system, with most decisions devolved downwards on the premise that each state should be entitled to indulge in stupid political experiments without dragging in the neighbors. Reviving federalism would continue to give dissenters to California's experiment in one-party rule borders to run across if it turns out to be something of a mistake.

We could devolve decisions down even further. If—as Nate Cohn pointed out—"liberals and conservatives have self-segregating preferences, with many explicitly preferring to live around people with similar political views, and others expressing preferences that indirectly lead them toward communities dominated by their fellow partisans," than that suggests that more local decision-making would minimize the number of unwilling conscripts into potentially contentious policies.

Relatively unburdened by impositions from our political enemies, we might feel less compelled to resist alien views with bursts of righteous and intolerant outrage. Reducing centralized power and decision-making would also have the very real benefit of stripping thin-skinned government officials of the power to punish critics and enemies.

And who knows? If power is devolved far enough—to individuals, by preference—we might even come to see our divergent views as harmless eccentricities rather than existential threats.