Our country has fallen ill. Sick with division, citizens mock, berate, and name each other enemy. Our national motto, chosen at our founding, E pluribus unum (Latin for “out of many, one”), is a faint whisper amidst the din of rancor and bile Americans spew at one another. Many liberals label conservatives: stupid, belligerent, a blend of the -isms. Conservatives similarly call the left: stupid, naïve, snowflakes. The political center is losing ground to the extremes and ideas are losing their importance, while the side you’ve picked is all-encompassing.
This is not a new phenomenon. The United States has always struggled with pluralism, inclusion, and reasoned solutions. The fever surrounding our moral disease of slavery erupted into deep divisions, secession, and Civil War. Instead of confronting and abolishing it by peaceful means, the chaos of war devoured America’s sons in the hundreds of thousands, unleashing economic and social disruption in the South that continues to haunt us.
We’re picking sides, again. Instead of blue and grey, it’s red and blue.
In our Information Age, we have unfettered and unfathomable access to humanity’s accumulated knowledge. The paradox of our time, then, is that each political team has its own media bubble, separate and self-selected. Fake news—not the kind that is critical or counter to one’s political ideology—is a real problem for the left and the right. Throw in a little social media cultural persuasion and a dash of bots—which now comprise over half of internet traffic—that steer political discourse into automated warfare, and reasoned discourse atrophies. Amidst this churning instability, our 45th president declares an entire American institution, respectable news organizations, as an “enemy of the people,” a rhetorical turn of phrase employed by leaders who oversaw state-sanctioned atrocities. Worse yet, many Americans agree (~148,000 people liked the President’s tweet). These realities are hardening and not overlapping. Common ground, indeed, common reality, is becoming scarce, making discussion close to impossible.
How then is civil, political discourse to survive? How do we, as Americans, broach that divide in the face of such daunting circumstances?
We must be determined to remedy our sick division despite the swirling apparitions of chaos and doom. Determination in hand, we must reclaim our own liberal, democratic tradition of free exchange of ideas and opinions. John Stuart Mill, an English political philosopher and a Member of Parliament from 1865-1868, wrote many treatises on free speech, a cornerstone of democracy enshrined in our First Amendment. In On Liberty, Mill posits “…if [an opinion] is not fully, frequently, and fearlessly discussed, then it will be held as a dead dogma and not a living truth.” A symptom of our sickness is that conflicting ideas are dismissed out of hand or never penetrate our self-imposed bubbles. We do not challenge ourselves and exchange in debate with diverse ideas and perspectives. Not only is this lazy, but it’s dangerous to our democracy. Our immunity has been compromised. Foreign influence has sought to sow discord among us and many are only blaming each other.
There is still hope. The internet, for all its ills, is producing forums for debate and spaces for discussion. Many on the both sides of the political divide are furious over Russian influence in our elections. Indeed, Senators from both parties are combining forces to codify sanctions meant to curb Russian aggression in the Ukraine. Our government has also begun its counter-offensive in the information war. Despite gradual shifts rightward in the GOP, principled conservatives, like David Frum, David French, Jamie Kirchick, Charlie Sykes, and Eliot Cohen are genuinely concerned about US democracy and are maintaining their convictions within a tumultuous and increasingly unprincipled party. Liberal intellectuals, routinely cursed for a perceived anxiety about political correctness, are reaching out to understand the political divide.
However, these alone will not cure us. Democracy depends on its people’s relations to each other. Without trust, without a common, shared reality to make decisions, democracy is cut off at the knees. For it to be healthy and function efficiently, each one of us must cast off our bubbles, seek out those who disagree with us, and engage in earnest, respectful dialogue and debate. One can both understand and disagree with a conflicting opinion. This should be our standard in political discourse and disagreement. For those who disagree with us are fellow countrymen and women: sisters, fathers, wives, cousins, friends—Americans, above all. Out of many, we are one. While difficult to hear above the chaotic frenzy, the weight and spirit of our national motto persists: our pluralism is our strength.