As political rhetoric ratchets up along with the stakes in the 2020 presidential race, there need to be more calls for civility, thoughtful debate, an open-mindedness toward hearing points of view that are different from ours. In essence, we need to relearn how to agree to disagree, and let those differences weave the strong fabric of our society.
Earlier this week, several newspapers around the nation issued pleas toward a more measured discourse, and civic engagement. The editorial board of the San Diego Union Tribune penned a reminder of just how big the wedge has become, why its blade has been pushed so deep, and what is at stake. We will let their words speak to just what lessons should be gleaned.
What follows is their editorial:
Partisanship and polarization are nothing new in America. For decades, some conservatives have vilified liberal politicians and proposals for putting the nation on a path to communism, and some liberals have vilified conservative politicians and proposals for putting the nation on a path to Nazism.
This vitriol is more disdainful in our digital age. Talk radio, TV punditry and the internet have made it easier for partisans to live in bubbles that reinforce their own views, and social media sites have made it easier for hyperpartisans to organize crusades over perceived thoughtcrimes, as if this were “1984” and unorthodoxy were outlawed. Seventy years after George Orwell wrote his classic dystopian novel, America is in a most vituperative state.
By a wide margin, the main offender driving this wedge is President Donald Trump, whose demonizing of critics — such as calling Republicans who disavow him “human scum” — couldn’t set a worse example. But this “us vs. them” mind-set is common on the left as well, as the nation knows from Hillary Clinton’s 2016 “deplorables” quip and just saw with the backlash against talk-show host Ellen DeGeneres palling around with former Republican President George W. Bush. This is why former President Barack Obama’s remarks last week at a forum on youth activism were a tonic for our times.
“This idea of purity and you’re never compromised and you’re always politically ‘woke’ and all that stuff,” Obama told a mostly young audience in Chicago. “You should get over that quickly.”
“The world is messy; there are ambiguities. People who do really good stuff have flaws. People who you are fighting may love their kids, and share certain things with you. ... I do get a sense sometimes now among certain young people, and this is accelerated by social media, there is this sense sometimes of: ‘The way of me making change is to be as judgmental as possible about other people,’ and that’s enough.
“Like, if I tweet or hashtag about how you didn’t do something right or used the wrong verb,” he said, “then I can sit back and feel pretty good about myself, cause, ‘Man, you see how woke I was, I called you out.’ That’s not activism. That’s not bringing about change. If all you’re doing is casting stones, you’re probably not going to get that far.”
While the response from some millennials and some in Gen Z was bound to be, “OK Boomer,” Obama’s framing underscores the point that the goal of human interaction is progress — making the world better — not annihilating those with different views.
A survey released last year by researchers from YouGov and the More in Common civics group found that only 14% of Americans are “starkly polarized” people who see the world in absolute terms.
Yet, extremes often dominate national debates. As New York writer Freddie deBoer wrote in 2017 about fellow progressives, “That’s what liberalism is, now — the search for baddies doing bad things, like little offense archaeologists, digging deeper and deeper to find out who’s Good and who’s Bad.”
This impulse is also strong on the right. Critics of police or the military can face reflexive vilification for making reasonable points. Pundits who have spent decades demonstrating their conservatism — starting with George Will and Ross Douthat — now face condemnation for a refusal to embrace Trump.
Even as other Americans take their cues from a president who so widely disparages so many others, America should be better than this. His predecessor is right: “The world is messy.” Internet culture has righteously allowed the “Black Lives Matter” and “Me Too” movements to thrive. It also allows a toxicity to fester that makes us all more mean-spirited. The answer may be tweet less, talk to people more.