I want to begin this piece with a word of praise for Nancy Pelosi. In an interview with the Washington Post , she rejected (for now, at least) calls to impeach Donald Trump. But it’s not just what she decided that’s important; it’s also how she explained it. Here were her key words: “Impeachment is so divisive to the country that unless there’s something so compelling and overwhelming and bipartisan, I don’t think we should go down that path, because it divides the country.”
Taking her words at face value, Pelosi is doing something that more politicians should do when making a momentous decision — considering the consequences not just for one’s partisan tribe but also for the health of the American body politic. Striking this balance increasingly isn’t just a matter of political positioning; it’s a national necessity.
This morning the New York Times’ Thomas Edsall published an important essay highlighting a new study that analyzed the extent of “lethal mass partisanship.” As Edsall observes, the paper contained some disturbing statistics. Among them, “42 percent of the people in each party view the opposition as ‘downright evil.’” A stunning 20 percent of Democrats and 16 percent of Republicans believe “we’d be better off as a country if large numbers of the opposing party in the public today just died.” And if the opposing party wins the 2020 election, 18 percent of Democrats and 13 percent of Republicans “feel violence would be justified.”
We hear quite a bit about “dehumanizing rhetoric” in American public life. Well, it appears that tens of millions of Americans now have dehumanizing beliefs. “One out of five Republicans and Democrats agree with the statement that their political adversaries ‘lack the traits to be considered fully human — they behave like animals.’”
I wonder where those numbers would be if our nation hadn’t been extraordinarily lucky in the last two years. Yes, lucky. Imagine our national culture if the congressional baseball shooter hadn’t been immediately confronted by two brave Capitol Police officers. Imagine a nation where the Charlottesville terrorist kept plowing through the ranks of protesters, or where the Trump superfan bomber actually succeeded in making functioning explosives.
In a time of crisis, American citizens often look for guidance and take their cues from the subset of American citizens who are most engaged and informed. Yet study after study is now showing that this cohort of Americans is driving the engine of American division. As University of Pennsylvania professor Yphtach Lelkes told Edsall, “Ironically, reflective citizens, who are sometimes seen as ideal citizens, might be the subset of strong partisan identifiers most likely to fall in line with the party.” Consequently, “The democratic dilemma may not be whether low information citizens can learn what they need to know, but whether high information citizens can set aside their partisan predispositions.”
These statistics and studies confirm our personal experiences. I speak and write quite a bit about national polarization, and when I criss-cross the country, I often ask this question: “Are the people you know who are most obsessed with politics in general more or less angry — more or less gracious — than the rest of your friends?” Few people respond that their political friends are the most hopeful and tolerant members of their community.
Given the extraordinary complexity and difficulty of most political and cultural challenges, American activism and political engagement should be marked by humility and openness to opposing views. After all, who has the easy and obvious formula for racial reconciliation? For peace in the Middle East? For the repair of the American family? For sustained economic growth across all social classes in the midst of an ongoing technological revolution?
But I suppose if you believe that your opponent is more jackal than human, then there’s no real need to engage — except to destroy. All the interesting conversations will be on your side of the aisle only.
There is a link between the lethal fantasies Edsall outlines in his piece and the more widespread impulse to “merely” ruin the careers and livelihoods of our people we despise. At the edges, partisans are fine with seeing their political opponents physically suffer. It’s far more mainstream to hope to see them financially and socially ruined.
It’s in this atmosphere that I’m increasingly of the view that the vanishing, bipartisan class of civil libertarians represent an important ingredient in the glue that keeps America together. The fundamental idea that we should defend the rights of others that we would like to exercise ourselves often requires that we gain greater sympathetic understanding of our opponents’ points of view. After all, the defense of liberty in the public square can never be merely legalistic. To be effective it also has to humanize.
And crucially, it also has to educate. There is simply no way to enjoy or cultivate a true culture of liberty without tolerating even terrible things. We human beings are messy mixtures of virtue and vice, and while there are vices so profound that they render a person unfit for presence in the public square, we should be very careful indeed before we try to punish a man for his thoughts. How many of history’s greatest artists — of its most interesting thinkers — would pass our modern partisan purity tests?
We cannot keep relying on our good luck to avoid a true crisis of division (and potential violence). I’m skeptical that Pelosi’s current impeachment analysis — which places national unity over the demands of her angry activist base — represents a true shift from toxic partisanship. After all, her caucus just passed a grievously unconstitutional and authoritarian bill that not only limits free speech but exposes more citizens to potential social shaming and economic reprisal. But her impeachment analysis still represents the right approach. It’s past time for politicians and activists to recognize the urgency of the moment. Partisan hate is spiraling out of control.