Pew Research released, “Political Polarization in the American Public,” a report detailing the widening gulf between American citizens along political lines over the last twenty years. More people now report being more consistently conservative and liberal than previously, leading to stretching the social fabric of the nation.
The report’s overview offers many things to consider from a civility perspective. First, let us dispense with a myth that being more consistently conservative or liberal makes people inherently less civil. Similarly we should not follow the temptation to think being moderate or centrist is somehow more civil. (Also, moderate or centrist is extremely difficult to define. Is someone a moderate because she takes a centrist position on most issues or because she holds a generally equal amount of conservative and liberal views on different matters?) Rather, the challenge for all of us—liberals, moderates, and conservatives—is how do we remain open to engaging in an appreciative manner views that are different than our own? How willing are we to be in community with people who disagree with us? How committed are we to not dehumanize others for holding views we find wrong? To this end, Pew’s report details troubling trends.
As Americans have grown more liberal and conservative, so has their distrust and even antipathy for the other side. “In each party, the share with a highly negative view of the opposing party has more than doubled since 1994. Most of these intense partisans believe the opposing party’s policies ‘are so misguided that they threaten the nation’s well-being.'” Clearly ideas and policies matter. One party may very well have plans that if put in place would hurt the nation. What concerns me is that this growing antipathy breaks the social fabric necessary for a pluralistic democracy. To credibly engage each other in the public square requires we give the benefit of the doubt to our neighbor, to trust he operates out of good intentions. I believe we must be able to say to one another, “Even though I may think your positions are misguided and possibly dangerous, I trust that you want the best for the nation.” Otherwise we have a rapidly decreasing amount of room to find mutually beneficial solutions.
This antipathy has serious consequences for our communities. Pew reports as people move more into “ideological silos,” they grow less likely to have friends who do not share their political views. More troubling, people express less desire to even live near those with a different political outlook. We’re becoming a nation that wants to be neighbors only with people who think like we do. Forget the redistricting fights that happen every decade—if we continue on this trend, we’ll gerrymander ourselves. This area of the report seems to be the most difficult to parse since the researchers found plenty of correlative but non-political data shaping the responses of how people choose where to live. For example, liberals voiced a preference for urban living where they could walk to the grocer, conservatives liked a rural environment with more space, and just about nobody loved the suburbs. One wonders how this data is any different than the realities that have shaped our communities historically. I live in the Bay Area of California, where many liberals flocked and many conservatives avoided for decades. Is the data new because what we’ve long suspected has now been shown with evidence? Or is this data new because more people are now saying explicitly, “it is important to them to live in a place where most people share their political views”?
Some might argue that for the sake of civility and the social fabric it would be better for consistent conservatives and liberals to moderate their political views, but I don’t think that’s a likely possibility. Asking people to give up, diminish, or silence core convictions isn’t a very civil request. Nor would a mass moderation movement necessarily change these disheartening trends. One could just as easily imagine moderates preferring only to live near other moderates and desiring to ghettoize the extreme left and right.
A possible solution I see would be a lot more messy and uncomfortable than our current situation. Silos and ghettos are a lot easier to maintain than choosing to live together. I believe we begin recapturing a positive view of our neighbors with whom we differ politically by committing to seeing them as our neighbors first before seeing them as a political adversaries. It is civil to give them the benefit of the doubt that they are operating out of good intentions. Finding ways to extend and ask for help from one another creates a neighborly environment. It becomes a lot more difficult to dehumanize someone when you help them change a tire or when they help you bring the groceries inside. That is, we remind ourselves that our neighbors have lives and concerns like us and they cannot be reduced to how far they lean left or right.
We not only try to see our neighbors for who they really are, we also take a hard look at ourselves. We ask if we are becoming more siloed, and if we are, we take steps to change course. That means fostering a willingness to make ourselves more uncomfortable by not receiving our political news only from a few sources that merely affirm our positions. We should engage news and thoughtful opinions from different sources, not to knock down or disprove those sources, but to really learn how our neighbors think. I also believe we have to take an appreciative approach, looking for what is good in our neighbor’s opinion, and seeking areas of agreement first, before we state our disagreement with him.
These trends pose special problems for the Church and they require us to ask ourselves hard questions. Are we shaped more by these trends in our society or by the gospel of Jesus Christ? How do we view our neighbors who hold political positions that are different than ours—do we see them as children of God, or would we rather avoid them? Do we prefer to live only near those who hold similar political views as we do or are we willing to love our neighbors no matter how they vote?