Can Mutually Loathing Americans Learn To Leave Each Other Alone?
The country needs a political truce with devolved power.
It's no secret that Americans fundamentally disagree over who should get to jam their vision of the good life down their opponents' throats. We're so at odds that some people even question whether the United States should continue as a unified country. Worse, these divisions are driven less by strong bonds among allies than by hostility to opponents and the institutions they control. As damaging as polarized politics are to domestic tranquility, the hate-based version is even more pernicious since it creates potentially insurmountable barriers.
"Nearly three months after the dawn of a new era of divided government in Washington, Americans express highly negative views of President Joe Biden, the congressional leadership in both parties and Congress more broadly," Pew Research reported last week.
Low approval ratings are par for the course for elected officials these days. But those low ratings conceal significant disagreements among Americans.
"At least six-in-ten Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents continue to express confidence in Biden," Pew adds. "By contrast, Republicans and Republican leaners continue to express low confidence in Biden on every issue."
And the public's low opinion of Congress conceals the fact that Republicans and Democrats alike approve of their own party's leaders in Congress and blame the other side for the body's woes. "Nearly identical majorities of both Republicans and Democrats say that the other party is doing too little to work with their side."
The result is that a majority of Americans across partisan affiliations now believes the country "cannot solve many of its important problems," a reversal from the majority who thought solutions were achievable even through the turbulence of recent years.
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They're All Immoral, Dishonest, and Closed-Minded
Blaming the other side has become a regular feature of American politics, extending far beyond those who wield power in government. Last summer, Pew reported, "Growing shares in each party now describe those in the other party as more closed-minded, dishonest, immoral and unintelligent than other Americans." And by growing shares, we're talking about big jumps over half a decade. "In 2016, about half of Republicans (47%) and slightly more than a third of Democrats (35%) said those in the other party were a lot or somewhat more immoral than other Americans. Today, 72% of Republicans regard Democrats as more immoral, and 63% of Democrats say the same about Republicans."
That's a dramatic increase in mutual loathing by supporters of the two main political parties, which hold roughly equal shares of public support whether you're talking about explicit party identification or those who lean in one direction or the other. Worse, this sort of negative partisanship is the defining feature of contemporary American politics.
"If we use what's called a feeling thermometer, which is commonly used in the political science literature, and you ask voters on a scale of zero to 100 how warm they feel toward a political party, those who are Republican are about as warm toward Republicans now as Republicans were 30 to 40 years ago, and the same holds true for Democrats, on average," Chris Weber, a political scientist at Arizona State University, found in 2020. "What's changed is the striking dip in feelings toward the opposing party, so Democrats are much more cold toward Republicans and Republicans are much more cold toward Democrats."
Hate-Based Politics Aren't as Constructive as You Might Hope
"Viewing half of the country or a large section of the country as antithetical to American democracy is actually really harmful," Weber added. "These are neighbors in many cases. So, I would certainly not call it a good or desirable thing. It's a deleterious characteristic of modern democracy, and it's an outgrowth of political polarization that has potentially very serious consequences."
Part of the problem is that negative partisanship becomes self-reinforcing as activists and political candidates draw on ill-will to build power.
"The use of insults to characterize opponents contributes to the psychological categorization of individuals, and the very usage of pronouns, where entire categories of persons are referred to not by name, but as the impersonal 'them,' depersonalizes and makes it easy to dehumanize them," Georgia State University's Jennifer McCoy and Murat Somer of Turkey's Koç University wrote in a 2018 paper published by The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science.
Insults such as immoral, dishonest, and closed-minded, for example?
Such vilification leads to "negative consequences for democracy…because it questions who has the right to live in a polity as a full citizen—membership vs. non-membership—and whether one group can claim exclusive legitimacy to represent the citizens in government," add McCoy and Somer.
In a National Divorce, Who Gets the Kids?
Such questions have some Americans favoring "national divorce" by which states dominated by different factions go their own way. Reason recently hosted a debate on the idea, and it's not an inherently unserious proposal. While secessions are often messy, peaceful separation worked well enough for what was Czechoslovakia, under the right conditions. But the idea has limited support.
"One in five Americans supports a national divorce, where Republican-leaning states form a separate country from Democratic-leaning states, while 77% oppose it," the Axios-Ipsos Two Americas Index found last month. Unfortunately, the poll also reported that "only 37% of Americans said they're optimistic about the state of our democracy" and "nearly 2 in 3 Americans now say there's more that divides us than unites us" with partisan hostility the major point of contention.
Low support for national divorce is just as well. Since the geographical borders of the political divide are defined less by state lines than by counties and gradations of population density between cities and the countryside, anything of the sort would be more challenging than splitting a central European country along lines of language and culture.
But that still leaves us with Americans who despise each other, distrust institutions in the hands of their political opponents, and see little way forward. Is that an omen of continuing battles over control of government bodies to keep them out of hostile hands and useful as weapons against hated others?
Instead of a national divorce, what America needs is a truce. We've spent decades turning a federal system into a centralized government only to discover that it's too dangerous to place under the control of those with whom we disagree. If we can't trust the presidency and Congress in the hands of the "enemy," we should devolve power to levels people can trust.
That devolution can be by law, as unlikely as that seems, with bodies further up the political food chain surrendering authority to localities and individuals. Or we could peacefully build upon what we're already doing with sanctuary cities that scorn immigration restrictions and Second Amendment sanctuaries protecting self-defense rights. Ignoring dictates from on high is a more promising—or, at least, less conflict-ridden—path forward than trying to capture and hold the heights of power.
Going our own way without completely separating may be the best way to get along.