WASHINGTON — Some presidential elections seem to change who we are as a people — or at least announce the arrival of a new order of things. The election of Franklin D. Roosevelt heralded a new, humane, larger role for government in a shattered economy. The election of John F. Kennedy marked the arrival of the generation that fought World War II into positions of power.
But 1932 and 1960 were exceptions. Most elections simply reflect who we are, like you’d expect from a vast mosaic of individual preferences.
The 2020 presidential election — conducted during a deadly pandemic, accompanied by racial protests, in the wake of massive economic dislocation—felt like it should be transformative. But what has unfolded is really a mirror. And most Americans seem happy with their reflected image.
Trumpians feel confirmed in their belief that a hostile establishment and hidden “deep state” are conspiring against their dignity and influence. Democratic progressives feel confirmed in their belief that the politics of compromise has gained liberalism nothing. Democratic centrists feel confirmed in their belief that they are saving liberalism from political oblivion. No large group of voters came away chastened or sobered.
More than any other reason, this is because politics has become a function of culture. A factual debate can be adjudicated. Policy differences can be compromised. Even an ideological conflict can be bridged or transcended. But if our differences are an expression of our identities — rural vs. urban, religious vs. secular, nationalist vs. cosmopolitan — then political loss threatens a whole way of life.
Donald Trump was elected to the office once held by Thomas Jefferson because he understood or intuited the cultural nature of American politics. His 2016 election was proof that a presidential candidate can win without proposing specific policies. His 2020 campaign was proof that an incumbent can nearly win reelection without having performed basic public duties. Policy and performance are irrelevant when there is only one political question: Is he on our side in the great cultural conflict?
This tendency is hardly new, but its tenacity is truly remarkable. It is one thing to keep your drunk uncle at the family picnic when he belches and swears. It is another thing when he starts urging family members to play Russian roulette and cages children from neighboring picnics. But this is what Republicans and conservatives have generally done. Since Trump is on their cultural side, the Fifth Avenue principle applies. He can cough on pedestrians all he wants and not lose any (or at least many) voters.
But I promised myself that I would not re-litigate the election. (I have also promised myself not to eat leftover Halloween candy, to similar effect.) The more important questions are: How does a [new] president govern—and how does a democracy function in the face of cultural polarization?
It is the columnist’s prerogative to respond: Watch this space. It encourages me that President-elect Joe Biden [if he is elected], House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., share a small but important micro-culture: the legislative tribe. If they want to see progress in fighting covid-19 and addressing pressing economic problems, they know how to make deals.
It encourages me that organizations such as the American Enterprise Institute are producing the innovative policy proposals (see AEI’s “Governing Priorities”) that an ambitious Republican reformer might run with.
And there’s something practical that citizens can do to address political polarization. It is important to the cohesion of our society that people keep a portion of their deepest selves off limits to politics entirely — the place where kindness, decency and hospitality dwell. Any political belief (really, any belief) that causes us to refuse friendship or fellowship to nonbelievers is wrong and corrosive, no matter how noble or necessary it may seem.
This is not to argue for any lessening of political intensity. The pursuit of justice requires passion and commitment. But any serious conception of justice is universally applicable. And that means the person screaming in your face is equal in value and dignity to you or anyone in your tribe. Real justice implies mercy and compassion, because that is what we hope our own dignity would merit from others. Any political system that preempts the Golden Rule is an attack on the ideal of human equality at the foundation of democracy. If we hold to constitutional values, dehumanization is a dangerous and discrediting form of hypocrisy.
In a divided nation, Americans need to defend a space in their lives where cable news does not reach, where social media does not incite, and where the basic, natural tendency is to treat other people like human beings. This offers not just the prospect of greater tolerance, but the hope of healing.
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