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Perspective: Tribal contempt is old as human history. Here are three things that can change it

Partisan division can be solved with the social relationships formed by strong institutions — and a revitalized civic understanding

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Illustration by Alex Cochran, Deseret News

Not a week passes without the publication of another news story, opinion piece or research study about America’s political and partisan divisions. Everyone seems to recognize that we have a serious problem, but the roots — and therefore the solutions — are not as clear-cut.

Based on the research and evidence, there is no single solution to resolving our current political predicament. Instead, resolution is likely to require a combination of things: expanding our personal relationships, resuming active participation and trust in institutions, and increasing our civic understanding.

There are actions that are required not just of America’s leaders, but all of us.

Destructive divisions

Many scholars and social scientists have documented our current toxic politics. Noted policy scholar and Harvard professor Arthur Brooks identifies our problem as contempt: “a noxious brew of anger and disgust. And not just contempt for other people’s ideas, but also for other people.”

According to Brooks, contempt for political opponents is like an addiction. We can’t seem to let it go even though it exhausts our productive energies, makes us unhappy and causes us “deep harm,” including mental and emotional symptoms such as higher levels of anxiety, depression and sadness.

Writing in the journal Science, a broad group of social scientists back up Brooks’ assessment. They describe our current political predicament as “holding opposing partisans in contempt on the basis of their (partisan) identity alone,” even while the evidence suggests that “common ground remains plentiful” when it comes to policy preferences. 

Partisan division and contempt have distorted for many people the purpose of political action into simply “dominating the abhorrent supporters of the opposing party.” In other words, our divisions increasingly mean that partisans would rather fail to enact their preferred policy agenda than enact their policies and lose the next election to “the other side.”

The typical conceptual tools for understanding partisan divisions may also be misleading us. Two scholars — a Harvard political scientist and a BYU-Idaho historian — recently wrote in The Wall Street Journal that “the entire debate (over polarization) is based on a misconception” of seeing politics through a linear, left-right framework. 

Far from being fixed political philosophies, the left and right in our politics are better understood as “social groups whose ideas, attitudes and issue positions constantly change,” according to Harvard’s Verlan Lewis and BYU-Idaho’s Hyrum Lewis.

In this view, our divisions result from a process of “social conformity” in which Americans claiming distinct political identities “change their views to stay in line with their political tribe.” Similarly, the scholars in Science describe this inherently social behavior as “partisans adjusting their policy preferences to align with their party identity.”

If divisions are being driven by tribal social instincts rather than policy differences, it helps make sense of why opposing partisans hold each other in contempt. Competing groups across the globe have built and maintained anger and disgust with each other since the dawn of recorded human history.

Incapacitated institutions

While political division may be an expression of the baser social aspects of human nature, additional developments have helped turn it into a full-blown civic crisis. One such development is the decline in Americans’ active membership in the kinds of institutions that might offer social interactions that mediate the contempt.

In his book “A Time to Build,” American Enterprise Institute scholar Yuval Levin describes institutions as the durable forms of how we associate with each other. They include common organizations (schools, hospitals, legislatures, the military and businesses), personal associations (family, marriage and professions) and even fundamental civic ideas (the rule of law and self-government).

Active participation in strong institutions often facilitates social experiences with people of diverse backgrounds and perspectives. It also exposes people to institutional standards that instill personal ethical norms that help shape our views and values. Such experience sands off the more extreme edges from positions and ideas that seem out of sync with our institutional connections and activities. The result is that these institutional experiences help unify us as Americans of differing backgrounds, views and identities.

The decline of American institutions is evident in decreasing membership in organized religion and decreased public trust in schools and government at all levels. This decline has weakened one of the civic bulwarks against disagreement becoming division and partisanship becoming political poison. The broader social and political ramifications of this toxic mix of division and declining institutions are serious. As Edmund Burke wrote in a letter to a French friend, “Liberty is … but another name for justice; ascertained by wise laws, and secured by well-constructed institutions.”

Toward healing

How can we preserve our liberty and civic fabric from the destructiveness of political division? As is often the case, understanding the nature of the problem points to solutions.

In a democratic republic like the United States — where we select our own leaders and organize ourselves to achieve political and policy goals — our eroding trust and political problems are a reflection of us as a people. As William Shakespeare wrote in “Julius Caesar,” “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves.” It follows that part of the solution lies not with what we see in “the other,” but what we see in the mirror. There are three things that each of us can do: expand our relationships, help to restore our institutions and increase our civic understanding.

The loss of the mediating influence of diverse associations found in institutional associations means we need to fill that gap in our lives. Specifically, we can fill it with a particular type of relationship: friendships across differences.

As our lives, both in person and on social media, retreat into the comfort zone of like-minded associations, it becomes even more important to reach out and regularly interact with those of differing life experiences, backgrounds and perspectives on the world. As we come to know people who are different than us on a personal and human level — to the point of calling them our friends — we lose the contempt we might otherwise feel toward them based solely on political ideology or partisan affiliation. We begin to recognize the many things that we have in common: even some shared values, attitudes and personal interests.

While we often see institutions as monoliths run by others, each of us have a role in sustaining them and rebuilding them to better fit the needs of society today.

By regularly volunteering at a school, sharing our views at meetings of state and local lawmakers, being active in a community association or participating in an organized faith tradition, we become part of restoring healthy institutions — or growing new ones — that can bridge political and partisan divides. This will, in Levin’s words, “empower us by constraining us,” and help to replace disagreement with accommodation.

Perhaps most importantly of all, it will “help to satisfy our intense desire for membership and belonging, not just by giving us something bigger to be part of but also by giving us a part to play, and therefore a way to shine — to be known, noticed and appreciated as individuals.”

Finally, by improving how we communicate the stories and key facts of American history and civics, we will create the understanding necessary to motivate the solutions to our divisions.

The story of the Declaration of Independence is a story of finding and refining American ideals in the furnace of a war to build a new kind of nation, a nation grounded in the idea of the equality of humankind. The story of the Constitution is a story of principled compromise adopted — sometimes with significant discomfort — to move forward the interests of Americans in politically plausible ways, while recognizing that momentous human problems remained unresolved and must be revisited to form “a more perfect union.” 

The story of American civil rights is a story of trying to fulfill the aspirations of the Declaration and the Constitution for an ever-larger proportion of Americans. It is a reminder that some Americans still have cause to cry out, in the powerful words of Frederick Douglass: “Are the great principles of political freedom and of natural justice, embodied in that Declaration of Independence, extended to us?”

Political and partisan division is not new to America or human history; intertribal contempt is a tale as old as time. But we have experienced times of rising above that history. We have seen moments when we overcame our most difficult challenges. The worst problems of our divisions can be solved through the broad and diverse social relationships formed by strong institutions — and by a revitalized general civic understanding of why such things are essential in American life.

Our problems are large, but not insurmountable. We are not powerless to begin bridging the divides in our politics. By expanding friendships, restoring trust and participation in our institutions, and increasing our civic knowledge, we can turn the tide on political and partisan division in America and build a more promising life and a meaningful pursuit of human happiness. Lincoln might have called this a societal new birth of freedom — for ourselves and future generations.

Derek Monson is vice president of policy for the Sutherland Institute, a nonpartisan policy and educational institution based in Salt Lake City.