Politics & Policy

The Orlando Debate Is Beyond Partisan — It’s Dangerously Polarizing

Protest signs outside the Stonewall Inn in New York, June 13, 2016. (Shannon Stapleton/Reuters)
Politics has gone from bad to worse.

Let’s do a terrible thought experiment. Let’s imagine that something approaching a 9/11-level terror attack happens again in this country. Does anyone imagine that America would rally together now as it did then? Does anyone believe that Twitter would not erupt in partisan venom even while fires still burned, and bodies were trapped in the rubble? And does anyone doubt that many of the chief traffickers in hate and rage would be pundits, politicians, and celebrities — the very people that many Americans look to as leaders?

Despite George Washington’s fondest hopes, America has always been a partisan place, and — as the old saying goes — politics ain’t beanbag. No one should imagine that there was ever a golden era of civility and mutual respect. I’m old enough to remember the sheer hate directed at Ronald Reagan. I’m old enough to remember getting mailers alleging that Bill Clinton was involved in a series of murders in Arkansas. Politics has always been bad.

But history teaches us that politics often gets worse, that America can lurch from the normal rough and tumble of political debate and into true polarization — where for a time the forces that hold America together start to grow weaker than the forces that tear us apart.

We know, for example, that the American people are growing more polarized. We vote straight partisan tickets more than we used to, we’re less likely to like people on the other side, and our politicians reflect (and shape) those same attitudes. But the polarization runs deeper than mere politics. The cultural differences between, say, Manhattan and Columbia, Tenn., are vast and growing. You can live your entire life in Manhattan without knowing people who own a gun or attend an Evangelical church. You can’t spend a day in Columbia without talking to a pistol-packing Baptist. We watch different things. We read different things. We believe different things.

RELATED: Will Orlando Change Anything?

And when crisis hits, we process the events as if we come from entirely different worlds. Millions of leftists look at the Orlando attack and don’t just think, “This is what happens in a country saturated with guns and homophobia,” they actually hold conservatives responsible for the violence. After all, don’t they protect gun rights? Don’t they “demonize” gay people? And the fury only rises when they see conservatives offer expressions of shock, sadness, and sympathy. Who are you to weep over these victims? These leftists believe — they genuinely believe — that conservatives help put those men and women in the grave. Some even go so far as to excuse terrorism — showing more compassion for jihadists than for their fellow citizens.

#share#Conservatives, on the other hand, look at the same carnage and rage at the terrorist who committed the crime — a response that I believe is righteous and just. But some go further — extending virtually the same amount of rage against Barack Obama, as if he bears the same level of responsibility for the lives lost as do the terrorists. Even the GOP nominee hints that Obama might have been complicit in the attacks, saying Obama’s “not tough, not smart, or he’s got something else in mind.”

There is no good way out of this downward spiral. I’ve been a part of enough conversations about terrorism, gun control, and hot-button issues such as religious liberty and abortion to know that even the mere act of defending yourself against hysterical accusations is seen as a further outrage.

One simply can’t wail, Rodney King–like, “Can’t we all just get along?” when differences are substantial and profound.

The cycle goes like this: A leftist leader proposes an assault-weapons ban. I defend Second Amendment rights, including my right to own a semi-automatic rifle. The leftist then derides me as a “gun nut” who’s “obsessed” with weapons. I defend religious liberty against legal changes that impair the free-speech and free-association rights of people of faith. The leftist then derides me as a “wingnut” who’s “obsessed” with gay people and bathrooms. When a person believe he owns the undisputed moral high ground, dissent is an outrage.

This is the university culture, bursting to life on a national stage. We are who we’ve taught our children to be. It’s the will to power combined with bulletproof self-righteousness.

And, frankly, there is little we can do. One simply can’t wail, Rodney King–like, “Can’t we all just get along?” when differences are substantial and profound. Too often, calls for civility are little more than calls for unilateral disarmament. Moreover, there are, in fact, consequences for being wrong, and those consequences can be deadly. I believe that the Obama administration’s decision to abandon Iraq, and its subsequent — and continuing — failure to adequately confront ISIS have had grave consequences. But I loathe ISIS. I lament the Obama administration. There’s a difference. ISIS fighters deserve death. The Obama ideology deserves to be discredited. There’s a difference.

#related#So I choose not to disarm. Conservative ideas are too precious to surrender. But, at the same time, I also choose to listen. I’ve lived long enough to know that even my fiercest enemies sometimes have information that I don’t have.

The best we can do is model the values of healthy partisanship and call out destructive polarization when we see it. That means focusing on attacking ideas, not people. That means defending your beliefs fearlessly while not giving way to bitterness. That means possessing the humility to know that each of us has much to learn. And above all that means defending — if necessary — the life and liberty of even your most hateful opponents. Someone has to act like an adult. Our nation’s health and continued unity depend on it. 

— David French is a staff writer at National Review, an attorney (concentrating his practice in constitutional law and the law of armed conflict), and a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom.

David French is a senior writer for National Review, a senior fellow at the National Review Institute, and a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom.

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