When issues of shared importance — like race, equality, immigration, climate change and crime — most always break along party lines, we should question whether we are hearing the complete and nonpoliticized truth on any of them.
America has moved rapidly down the path of polarization — faster than other nations, according to Brown University. “Affective polarization” causes too many of us to see everything — and everyone — first and foremost through a negative political lens.
The problem is this lens denies us debate and learning and ultimately erodes the fabric of our communities. As local and national legislative votes predictably split along party lines — friendships and community alliances seem to follow suit.
We have lost the skill and even desire for purposeful debate and argument. Farnam Street Media puts it this way: “Our interest is not in getting to the truth. We don’t even consider the possibility that our opponent might be correct or that we could learn something from them.”
Despite the efficiency with which we argue our opinions on social media, in the end we learn nothing.
Examples are abundant:
Politicized curriculum in public education says there is no accurate truth or history — only versions that vilify some groups and figures, and leave us feeling divided, unworthy and unhappy.
When legitimate security questions over voting rights and processes become politicized, we undermine confidence in institutions and each other — and accusations make unified solutions impossible because we can never know who is telling the truth.
And politicizing a pandemic has produced levels of contempt that defy understanding. Accurate data and emerging science that could aid prevention, treatment and future management of the virus are still held hostage by ideology and partisanship.
In the end, we are denying ourselves solutions.
“But hey, it’s just politics — right?” No, it isn’t. Our children’s education, institutions of self-government and public health go well beyond “just politics.” This version of partisanship is having a profound effect on the future of our nation. A growing number of reputable social scientists are examining the emerging support for … wait for it … secession.
According to Brookings Institute, more than 40% of Republican and Democrat voters are at least “somewhat” supportive of the idea of separating irredeemably divided red and blue states.
How did the world’s most innovative experiment in self-governance — the nation that secured independence, endured a Civil War, outlasted the Great Depression, landed a man on the moon, and launched the computer age; that thrived despite and perhaps because of differences of opinion — lose its ability to unite around shared values?
And what about our unifying aspirations of “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness?”
Real data prove that we enjoy a standard of living and quality of life that is the envy of the world. Liberty sometimes strains against diverse populist interests, but our freedom to voice our discontent is unparalleled.
But in the end, we are not happy: not with each other, not with political parties, and not with the direction of our country.
This absence of happiness seems to be the deal-breaker.
Harvard scholar Arthur Brooks teaches about happiness. He acknowledges that unless we change the way we regard each other, secession is not all that far-fetched.
Brooks offers a solution. And the solution is … wait for it … love.
He surprises some people when he says that from a behavioral science standpoint, the opposite of love is not hate — it is fear. Hate is a byproduct of — a response to — fear. And one way of dealing with fears is to strive to eliminate the threats that cause them.
If today, the threat we fear most is each other, then elimination of the threat means separating ourselves from those we disagree with. That, in a word, is secession.
How can love save us from division and contempt? How can it reconnect our personal pursuit of happiness to a shared pursuit, grounded in the common good? By refreshing the “mystic chords of memory” and “bonds of affection” that once preserved the union.
Love compels us to break the habit of politicizing every issue and depersonalizing each other. It causes us to see each other as having inherent worth no matter our political or policy views — and that changes everything.
Next time you feel driven to act aggressively on partisan bias, ask yourself this: “Am I acting in defense of my values, or am I weaponizing them to defeat an enemy?
And if secession strikes you as a political win, please pause and rethink your position. It would be dangerous in practical policy terms (economy, defense, trade, infrastructure, social programs), and on another level it would confirm what Abraham Lincoln feared most: “Secession would … prove for all time — to both future Americans and the world — that a government of the people could not survive.”
The solution is not political. No candidate today could secure a party nomination on the message of love — love for our history and self-governance; love for this nation and everyone in it. But think about how course-altering it would be if they could.
Rick B. Larsen is CEO of Sutherland Institute, a nonpartisan conservative think tank advocating for principled public policy that promotes the values of faith, family and free markets.