E pluribus disunion

A conversation with scholars and commentators reveals a low point in an American ideal and signs of recovery

Governing a society of diverse religious, racial and political backgrounds has been an American ideal since the Rhode Island Charter was granted 360 years ago. Our political and legal institutions are designed to achieve that utopia of pluralism. But from the beginning of the American experiment, it has been messy finding that pluralistic sweet spot as political, religious or racial majorities see competing interests and beliefs as threats to eliminate rather than as ideas to accommodate.

Elections, school board meetings, congressional hearings, lawsuits, editorials and social media posts are all part of the ongoing churn of democracy moving forward and back — mostly toward that common goal of respecting individual rights for the overall good of society.

Deseret Magazine executive editor Hal Boyd invited four leaders in the legal, religious, academic and media arenas to discuss whether the nation has reached a nadir of division and rancor that poses a unique challenge to pluralism. Their conversation explores how that happened and what individuals and institutions can do to keep the country moving toward the founding ideal of a pluralistic society.

The panel included Shima Baradaran Baughman, an associate dean of the University of Utah College of Law and a distinguished faculty fellow at the Wheatley Institute at Brigham Young University; Robert P. George, the McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence and director of the James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions at Princeton University; Coleman Hughes, a writer and host of the popular podcast “Conversations with Coleman,” where he engages with an eclectic array of luminaries across the political spectrum; and Asma Uddin, a visiting professor of law at Catholic University of America and a fellow with the Aspen Institute’s Religion & Society Program.

The wide-ranging discussion was edited for clarity and length.

Hal Boyd: At the end of the 2016 election season, a writer declared in The Atlantic that pluralism’s future was in peril. But Americans’ anxieties about politics, identity, crime, or race relations have been long standing for at least the last half century. Is America uniquely divided today or not? 

Coleman Hughes: The story since the 1990s has been increasing partisan polarization. The percentage of Democrats who say they hate Republicans has gone up. The percentage of Republicans who say they hate Democrats has gone up. And what’s really interesting to me is the good feelings about race relations that were held by the majority of Black and white Americans and Hispanic Americans 20 years ago didn’t start changing until 2013. 

So you ask what happened around 2013, I think the best explanation is that’s when a critical mass of people had smartphones and social media and that led to a different way of consuming information, which led to a kind of pessimistic view of race relations. You can now see a video of a police officer brutalizing a Black American that couldn’t go viral before. And the algorithm actually promotes that which angers you the most. I think that’s the key thing that changed around 2013. It’s not that racism went up actually. Most indicators of racism continue to go down. It was that our perceptions of racism went up at that time because of smartphones and social media. That’s consistent with data, showing that Americans who are on social media believe and report more racist experiences in their own life than Americans who are off social media. Social media has given people a misperception of how bad things are in the country.

“Pluralism is a challenge that any truly free society faces. But it’s a good challenge to have because it’s a good thing to be a society in which people enjoy freedom of thought.”

Asma Uddin: I think the axis upon which we’re being divided is changing. The guides are more intrinsically and essentially ideological. Also, the way that race, along with religion, sexual orientation, and a number of other traits, including what we drive and what we eat, where we live and so on, are being sorted and clustered into mega identities, and those identities are making Americans feel more divided.

Hal Boyd: If polarization and civil animosity is a problem of technology that we’ve created, is it one that can be fixed, and if so, why haven’t we fixed it? Is something deeper going on?

Robert P. George: Pluralism is a challenge that any truly free society faces. But it’s a good challenge to have because it’s a good thing to be a society in which people enjoy freedom of thought, freedom of religion, freedom of inquiry, freedom of discussion. Not everyone is going to converge on the same conclusions on both the superficial questions of life and the big questions of human nature, human good, human dignity and human destiny. 

And in a proper democratic republic there will be no permanent winners and losers. If you lose this time you always have the opportunity to revisit the issue in the next election, or go to work trying to change public opinion. But today, we have a very big problem as people aren’t satisfied with democratic resolutions to the questions that divide us. They want to win. And I get that. I have views that I hold very strongly and would prefer they prevail because I believe they are what’s just and true and right. But the problem is when we are entirely caught up in winning, we tend to degenerate into tribalists who view those who disagree with us not as reasonable people of good will but as bad people, as enemies. Not friends to debate, but enemies to be defeated and even destroyed.

And to Coleman’s point, technology makes it easier and more tempting to fall into a kind of tribalism as we communicate with each other as disembodied figures. People will get really outrageous and mean and nasty on social media in a way that, in my experience at least, people would be much less likely to do if they were dealing with each other face to face. So I think the points that Asma and Coleman have made are both right, and the problem is, we can’t really see the way out of this mess we’ve fallen into.

Hal Boyd: What role have politicians and media played in exacerbating polarization and causing division among people?

Shima Baradaran Baughman: I’m an expert on crime and drugs and I’ve had so many different encounters with reporters where they’re trying to get the extreme story, and sometimes when I give them the more balanced story, they don’t want to hear it, and you can’t blame any of the actors in the system. It’s just a system where the most extreme, the most negative gets the most exposure, and exposure is dollars and advertising. And so it’s hard to say where the real problem lies. Is it the politicians? Is it the media? Is it pundits on cable news? It’s all of those people because we’re all part of a system. 

You look at the police killings of African Americans. They’ve been pretty steady since 2016 or so, a few more in the last couple of years. Obviously it’s a problem. But that’s just one example in crime. Crime has gone down steadily since the ’90s from 700 crimes per 100,000 people to now we have 400. We are way less violent in society, and yet people perceive it to be different. 

If we can make a plea for data and for truth and try to see each other’s viewpoints, I think that’s something. Personally, what I’ve done is try to balance my intake of social media as well as reading things from the very left and very right. But whatever side you are, I think that’s one way to start on this division that we have.

Hal Boyd: If we do have the self-determination to balance our media diets why can’t we fix this problem? Surveys show that Americans are fed up with polarization. So, it seems as though there’s a public will to solve this problem.

Coleman Hughes: Yeah, there is. I think almost everyone’s saying that. And in the moment they stop saying it, they’re as likely to be grabbed by the next salacious headline. So, we’re all complicated beings with multiple wills. And I’m no saint in this department. I have best practices. At the same time, I’m as vulnerable as anyone to getting outraged at things, and not working hard enough to see the other side. Conversations like this one are certainly making a difference. But those of us who want to make progress on this issue are up against very powerful systemic and financial incentives.

Hal Boyd: At times religion is cast in a light of discouraging unity, but what role can faith play in fostering pluralism?

Asma Uddin: Religion helps us to navigate our divides and cultivate pluralism. Certainly, I think it is a big issue right now and a topic of a lot of discussion in religious liberty circles is the ability to express dissent, which is becoming harder and harder.

As someone who started on international religious freedom issues with a specific focus on blasphemy laws, and all of the tragic outcomes of laws like that, I have to say I think that there’s been a shift here in the U.S. moving closer and closer to something that looks like a blasphemy regime. While we have broad rights to free speech, I think there’s just so many pressures and real ramifications for people saying things that are considered wrong or offensive. The blasphemy laws are essentially enshrining the right not to be offended. And I think that is something that’s very much the case in the United States. So, while it might be true, as a number of you have pointed out, that there has been a decrease in physical violence, I would argue there’s been lots of other types of harassment threatening people’s livelihoods, and so on. It’s in some ways more troubling because it is so pervasive.

“when we are entirely caught up in winning, we tend to degenerate into tribalists who view those who disagree with us not as reasonable people of good will but as bad people, as enemies. Not friends to debate, but enemies to be defeated and even destroyed.”

Hal Boyd: Professor George, you’ve been in the academy for a few years now. Do you feel as though the environment has shifted over your career? Do you think there is a chilling effect, often we use the term cancel culture to talk about it? 

Robert P. George: There’s no question about it. A kind of climate of fear and intimidation has descended on academic institutions. This is also true of the broader intellectual culture. People often censor themselves. They don’t speak their minds because they fear retaliation. Sometimes it’s very easy to retaliate against a person using social media, and people are afraid to speak their minds on an issue for fear of being tarred as a bigot of some sort of racist, a xenophobe, all these labels that people use to harm the reputation of people they disagree with. It’s a very serious problem right now, and we’re starting to see pushback against it by organizations like the Heterodox Academy, Freedom Alliance and FIRE (Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression) designed to liberate people to speak their minds. 

Coleman Hughes: As an independent media person I’ve created a space for myself where I don’t have speech codes, where I can talk to whomever I want, and I have an audience that supports me. So, I’m in a very different situation, socially and career-wise than when I was at Columbia University, where there were heavy speech norms that made pretty much everyone afraid to discuss certain topics, certainly in most classes, except for certain professors who would do a good job of signaling that you can have any opinion in this class. And most people are not in that situation. I get messages from people who listen to my podcast, saying, “Oh, thank you so much for talking about this subject, etc. I have a job, I have a family. Something is going on at work that I have issues with and I fear that I can’t voice those without bringing penalties and punishments upon me that I just can’t justify at this point in my life.”

Hal Boyd: What can the person listening to or reading this, who may work at X Corporation or run a small business, do to preserve these ideals or pluralism and democracy?

Shima Baradaran Baughman: They can help build our public institutions. They can go to churches, they can go to community organizations, help do homeless work, refugee work. These are the types of institutions that help people of different faiths and different beliefs and ideological groups come together and build a country like America. As much as there is cancel culture, and colleges are the worst offenders, there’s still also a lot of hope where college students spend a lot of time doing pro bono work and serving in communities. This is the kind of work that’s going to keep our pluralism alive and keep us a uniquely diverse country. 

Asma Uddin: When we’re kind of in the everyday grind, we forget the positive side of things. Early on I learned to appreciate that concurrent to my work in international religious freedom, where I was learning more and more about the restrictions on speech and the ability to think critically in so many other countries, I was at the same times having conferences where people in the Muslim community were coming together to interrogate questions around marriage and gender roles, and religious dress and all kinds of other things related to the broader question of men and women and their place in Islam. So, I appreciate the ability to have those critical conversations, but not to feel like I was going to be limited, or so in any way to take on a particular position. 

I think also as a parent, there’s just so much anxiety around the ability to raise your children in a way that you see fit. There’s so many external influences that I think a parent is always worried about. But, at the same time, I’ve seen huge strides in the culture around questions of religious diversity. In comparing my childhood to the childhood that my children have to celebrate their own religion and see it in the public space in a way that’s more visible and exciting than anything that I experienced when I was a kid. So, I think those are all signs of good things, of the promise of what this country offers all of its citizens. 

Robert P. George: I think we should ask ourselves the question: What do we owe each other as fellow citizens? We owe each other the courtesy of engaging as fellow citizens by making arguments and marshaling evidence for our views. We owe it to each other not to be demagogues, not to be shouters, not to be hurlers of invective, not to be manipulators, not to lie, not to cook the data. We owe it to each other to be truthful, to give our reasons, make our arguments, provide the evidence that we have to support our views, and then I think we owe it to each other to effectively support the constitutionally prescribed mechanisms of deliberative democracy by which we make our decisions. 

But I don’t think we owe each other more than that, or that we need more than that to hold this fragile, admittedly fragile, experiment in republican government and morally ordered liberty together. 

Religious people need to be able to work with secular folks because these days there are a lot of secular folks who are worried about the same crushing of civil liberty that religious folk are worried about. So there are what would have looked, maybe 20 years ago, like unlikely alliances that are forming and I think that is a very good thing and promising thing. It doesn’t guarantee victory. There’s no guarantee that civil liberty and a constitutional republic government are going to prevail in the end. It’s an experiment. As I said earlier, it’s a bet. And we’re always just one generation from losing it. Each generation has got to shoulder the responsibility of maintaining it. So my exhortation to this generation is, we’ve got to do our part and hand it on to the next generation, and hope that they’ll do their part.

Coleman Hughes: It is a bet, and the instability that you see in our republic is not always evidence of something going wrong. In a way it’s evidence of something going right. What do I mean by that? I mean in alternative systems, authoritarian states, states without free speech, states without pluralism, they can look very stable until they collapse in a violent revolution and implode. Whereas the American system, where we are constantly discharging a bit of our anger, each faction is constantly able to win the next election, and so forth. The alternative is, we always seem to be fighting, and that’s not always necessarily a bad thing in some ways that can be a strength of why we don’t devolve into revolution after a period of seeming 50 years of stability. 

The bet has been working for a very long time, other than the Civil War,  although it is based on what might seem like a thin veneer of unity, namely the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence. If we examine and look into the reasons why it has worked and try to continue feeding the good parts of the system then I think we can be conditionally optimistic about it working in the future.  

This story appears in the July/August issue of Deseret Magazine. Learn more about how to subscribe.