Are we Doomed to live in Polarization?

Are we Doomed to live in Polarization? January 3, 2020

When Donald Trump came down that escalator in 2015, I had nothing but contempt for the man. I had heard him a couple of times delivering “political” commentary on FOX news and soon learned to go turn the channel to CNN or MSNBC as soon as he came on their shows (I watch news across the political spectrum). I had heard of his show “The Apprentice” which also did not inspire much respect for him. Admittedly, I never watched the show but how much talent does it take to say “you’re fired.”? I figured, like many people, that he would be the candidate of the week for the Republicans and then we would get to the more serious candidates.

As his lead persisted in the Republican party, I became more worried. I wanted two viable candidates for president. I used my facebook page to deride him and tried to convince some of my more conservative friends to not support him. When he won the nomination, it was disheartening to think that one of the major political parties would have such an incompetent candidate. I assumed he would lose, but wanted to discourage my Christian friends from voting for him as much as possible. I even placed articles in The Stream, a conservative Christian online magazine that is largely favorable to Trump, to discourage Christians from supporting him. I knew my effort would have little influence, but I wanted to be able to tell my kids years from now that I did my part in stopping Trump from becoming president.

But of course, candidate Trump did turn into President Trump. The shock of that event led me into thinking about what happened. I still wonder why such a crude, incompetent, race-baiting, sexist could win the presidency of our country. What is his attraction? I still grapple with that question. And wrestling with that question has made me consider issues that I had not previously noticed. I still do not completely understand the love for this president, and perhaps I never will fully understand it. But I am a little closer than I was in 2016.

As I consider our political landscape, I decided a while ago that I am not going to work so hard at defeating Trump as I did in 2016. I came to that decision for two reasons. First, I doubt I would have even the little impact I had a few years ago. My friends who support him are psychologically locked into that support and my arguments are doomed to go nowhere. But more importantly, second, he is a symptom of a much bigger problem. I fear if we do not heed the meaning of his election, then we will not deal with that problem until it is too late. There is a deep polarization in our society that made a Trump presidency possible and will continue to poison us. Just removing Trump will not solve this problem. We must think more long term than the next election cycle.

For this reason, my efforts with my conservative friends will not be to talk them out of voting for Trump. I seriously doubt that I can do that anyway. Rather I will look to influence them to move away from the nearly unconditional acceptance of Trump so many of them seem to have. For example, a couple of months ago on facebook, I had long discussion with some of them about the race baiting done by Trump. I encouraged them to condemn those statements even if they are going to vote for him. Yet, there is a powerful level of denial among them about the racist statements Trump makes from time to time. If they are going to vote for Trump anyway, I want them at the very least to admit that he engages in the race-baiting that encourages white nationalists and the alt-right, but so many of them failed to do even that.

It has been quite frustrating dealing with the double talk and denial among some, but to be fair not all, of my conservative friends. If they acknowledge his sexism, pettiness and other troublesome qualities, then perhaps conservatives will not be so tied to Trump as to defend him in his failings. They may become less open to seeing those who oppose him in dehumanizing ways and understand why Trump scares us. Perhaps with such an attitude, we can even find some compromises in our government from time to time since they do not have to defend Trump at every turn. It is clearly a humbler goal than discouraging my friends from voting for Trump, but given the degree to which so many of them are blindly supporting their political ally without thinking of the consequences of that support, I will take this limited goal at this point in time. I have blogged to challenge Christians before on this topic, and in time I hope to blog more to challenge political and religious conservatives hoping that more of them move from an automatic reflexive support of our president to a more conditional support that can work towards holding him more accountable.

But let’s be honest. Reflexive support of a political party and demonizing of the opposition is not merely a problem on the right. Progressives also are guilty of such outsized loyalty and outgrouping. Progressives talk about Trump supporters as motivated almost purely by racism and hatred. Of course there are racist Trump supporters, but do we really have enough overt racists to elect a president? Are there not real problems that have been neglected which allowed Trump to win the Republican nomination and then the presidency? Clearly the answer to that last question is yes. Trump is the hypothetical answer to certain problems that have been neglected. The problem with conservatives is that they think Trump can solve those problems. But the problem for progressives is that they do not even acknowledge those problems exist, much less attempt to address them.

A couple of examples should suffice. There is a suicide rate among white middle age men that is quite frightening. It has been growing since 2000 and yet until recently it has received little attention. Trump has no answer for this problem, but he at least appears to care about the plight of these men. What has the left offered? Another lecture on white privilege by a student attending an elite university? Being called deplorable by the Democrat president candidate? Assurances that once we have socialism that the government will meet all these men’s needs? Have they talked to these white men to find out why they feel so alienated that they are killing themselves and is anyone asking them what they need? If so, how have progressives reflected the concerns of these men in their agenda? Somehow, in ways I do not fully understand, Trump connects with these people. But then he would not have to try very hard to connect more than the efforts I have seen from progressives.

Or consider the issue I have done research on in Christianophobia. I forget the number of times I had a Christian tell me that they hate Trump, but at least Trump will leave them alone. I think they are wrong about supporting Trump, and that this support will make the problem, in the long-run, even worse. But I cannot deny the problems of Christianophobia they are concerned about. I know that many individuals deny that it is an issue. I am but one researcher, but I have already documented the effects of Christianophobia in academia and the press. Imagine how much evidence we would have if the same number of researchers looking for evidence of Islamophobia also sought evidence of Christianophobia. Denial of the issue does not make the issue go away, and indeed helps to drive some Christians to look for answers in the arms of a man who I believe does not have their best interests at heart.

The unquestioning loyalty of some progressives to a certain political agenda has led them to ignore these issues and set our country up to be led by someone like Donald Trump. This loyalty has also led them to create outgroups of conservatives and their attempts to stigmatize those conservatives do not serve our society well. Okay I already hear the objections of false equivalence being shaped in the minds of certain progressives. It is the argument they use when they do not want to confront the degree to which they too formulate hatred and even inspire violence (ex. the shooting of Steve Scalise) with their rhetoric. But a recent study puts a lie to this charge. It shows that Democrats are at least as likely to wish that large numbers of their political opponents would die, and justify violence if they lose the 2020 election as Republicans. Denying that there is a problem among the left with violence and hatred will not solve these problems.

This brings to me to one of my major theories of why we have the most unqualified president in our history. Our polarization has developed to such an extent that we no longer care about qualifications. We only want someone who will fight for us and our team. Forget trying to seek out compromises so that we can have some sense of unity in our society. Provide us with a candidate who fights. That attitude won Trump the nomination, and I do not see a unifying candidate among the major Democratic challengers for the presidency right now. Even among them I see the desire to find someone who fights, rather than someone who brings us together. As I have argued before, our polarization prevents us from solving important problems such as gun violence. And if we do not confront these attitudes, then whoever wins in 2020 will not be seen as legitimate. Can we have a peaceful transfer of power when the level of polarization has increased so much during Trump’s administration? I guess we will find out later this year.

So what is the solution? What way can we back away from this civil war that seems to be brewing in our society? Just as I have challenged my conservative friends to be mindful of the problems associated with Trump, I also feel the need to challenge progressives to engage in their own introspection. There are those who do not feel that a progressive agenda is honest or fair. Can progressives be willing to listen to those they have looked upon in the past with contempt? Can they recognize that some of their ideas surrounding identity politics have gone too far and threaten the common good? If my experience with dealing with my conservative friends are any indication, there will be progressives who do see some of the excesses in their political philosophy, but most progressives will reject the idea that they bear any responsibility for the polarization and hatred in our society. Perhaps with the few on the right and the left who are willing to admit to the shortcomings of those in their political in-group is where we must start.

Even though ultimately Trump did win the presidency, I was able to convince some of my Christian friends to not vote for him. They respected what I had to say because of the work I have done documenting Christianophobia. In other words, they saw me as one of them (and I am one of them in my Christian faith) and that allowed them to consider my arguments. I also hope that I can convince some of them to take seriously the problems of Trump. I know that my insider status will be a factor in helping me to do this. This indicates an important factor as we think about the polarization in our society. We are going to be most effective when talking to those on our side of the ideological spectrum and least effective when talking to those on the other side. Our efforts to reduce our polarization should reflect this reality.

So if you are a political conservative and concerned about these trends to polarization, then most of your efforts should be towards other political conservatives. Of course, you should point out some of the problems you see on the left, if for no other reason so that concerned individuals on the left have an opportunity to reflect on those issues. But if you do not put at least as much effort in convincing other conservatives to not dehumanize progressives as you are critiquing progressives, then you are part of the problem. Progressives can fairly argue that you are more concerned with gaining an upper hand than trying to make peace. Of course, this critique also applies to progressives who spend more time attacking the incivility of conservatives and do not appear to worry about the dehumanizing trends found among progressives.

The way out of this polarization is to engage in the introspection necessary to address these issues within our own communities. That is going to be difficult given how much dehumanization that is already taking place in our political circles today. Many of our political allies will question our loyalty. As a political independent, I have been there and done that. I heard questions of my loyalty from conservatives who assumed I was with them and from progressives who assumed I was with them. But it is the right approach if we want to deal with this division. The alternative is to stay in our political bunkers and lob ammunition at each other with the hopes that one side can eventually wipe out the other. Is that what we really want or can we turn into a nation where we can have peaceful disagreement? That is a question we really need to ask as we head towards what promises to be one of the most polarizing presidential elections ever.

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