In the closing of Abraham Lincoln’s first inaugural address, he told a tense nation on the brink of war, “We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection.”

Hearkening back to those words, a panel of scholars gathered Thursday in Washington, D.C., to consider whether those bonds of affection still hold and if unity is possible in today’s fraught political climate, with an election looming that stands to divide us even more.

Among their conclusions: Yes, an improved political climate is achievable and doesn’t even require that the whole nation sign on to the project. But it will take substantive changes in the language we use to talk about each other and the way we think about unity and moderation.

The four-hour event, sponsored by the American Enterprise Institute and the Wheatley Institute at Brigham Young University, was held at AEI’s headquarters and was moderated by former D.C. Circuit Judge Thomas B. Griffith, AEI senior fellow Adam J. White and Wheatley Institute Director Paul S. Edwards.

In his opening remarks, Edwards noted that the corrosive political environment is affecting every aspect of American life, including the family. He cited polling that shows 47% of young Americans have cut ties with a family member because of politics. He went on to discuss with panelists Mónica Guzmán and Timothy Shriver why there is a perception that we are the most divided we’ve ever been — even though, historically speaking, we’re not.

“You mention that we’re not as divided as we think, and really we’re not,” Guzmán, senior fellow for public practice at Braver Angels, told Edwards. “Research shows us over and over again the overlap on things like immigration and guns. It’s there, but you wouldn’t know it by the way we talk about it.”

Guzmán said there is too much fear and certainty, both “enemies of curiosity” that contribute to hostility among Americans who spend too much time in ideological silos. “Whoever is underrepresented in your life is going to be overrepresented in your imagination,” she said. “And your imagination is not a great source of truth.”

Shriver, chairman of the board of the Special Olympics, said that despite our divisions, “the demand for a change is enormous. This is an exhausted country. People are tuning out by the millions from news, from politics. They’re disgusted by the vitriol.”

And yet, Shriver said, there is a dearth of leadership to advance healing and the bridging of divides because the media environment works to “stifle the healers and elevate the dividers.” That means there’s opportunity for leaders to step into this space. “Our colleague, Spencer Cox, the governor of Utah, has been saying, ‘You can win elections on this,’” Shriver said.

How divided is America?

Guzmán, the author of “I Never Thought of It That Way: How to Have Fearlessly Curious Conversations in Dangerously Divided Times,” said Americans wrongly believe we are experiencing historically high levels of division because of technology that enables what she calls sorting, other-ing and siloing. “We’re thinking our way into a rut that isn’t even real.”

There is a real deterioration, however, in trust in foundational institutions, and in belonging to churches and other social groups that brought people together in the past, Shriver noted. Contempt for ideological opposites makes it difficult for either side to advance their issues. And because politicians benefit from extremism in the amplification of their voices, they have little incentive to behave differently.

But for Guzmán, it was political division within her own family that led her to be part of the solution. “The biggest reason I’m doing what I do is because of my family,” she said.

Guzmán’s family immigrated from Mexico to the U.S. and became citizens in the year 2000, when she was 17. She describes herself as a liberal; her parents are Trump-supporting Republicans. She said there was constant friction with her parents when she was in college and that their relationship was especially tested during the 2016 election. But they kept having challenging conversations until Guzmán finally reached the point where she realized, “If I were my parents, I would have voted for Trump, too.”

That understanding — which came from deep listening and understanding her parents’ perspective — did not change Guzmán’s political views, but ultimately led her to believe, “We’re getting people wrong. Way wrong. We’re making monsters where they don’t exist. And we need to stop.”

Why we need intellectual humility: A conversation with Mónica Guzmán

Shriver believes that is possible. “This country can solve problems,” he said, later adding that there is a natural human instinct to want to do better, and that research shows that it doesn’t take 100% of us to change the culture; rather, it just takes 10-15% to make a change that can eventually envelope the whole country.

Let virtue lead again?

In another session — featuring John Inazu of Washington University in St. Louis School of Law, National Constitution Center CEO Jeffrey Rosen, and AEI’s Philip Wallach and Adam J. White — the panelists talked about the problems that ensue in a democracy when people idealize individual leaders rather than virtues championed or exhibited by the leader.

Ideally, we should be devoted to principles that are larger than an individual leader, Rosen said, noting that John Adams worried that the human desire for recognition might corrupt American democracy. He quipped, “If Adams imagined the age of Instagram, he might have called off the revolution.”

During a question-and-answer session, Katrina Lantos Swett, president of the Lantos Foundation for Human Rights & Justice, said that “shame and honor are different sides of the same coin” and asked the panelists if recapturing a sense of shame in our culture would make virtue more important in the public square again.

Rosen responded, explaining that shame and honor are typically associated with societal hierarchies that are rejected in our democracy. But, he said, “In eliminating an idea of shame in the name of democracy, you really do open yourself up to demagogues because Caesar, or our current crop, can just be shameless and insist that they’re above the law and do anything because the allegiance is to them, and not to their conduct and not to their upholding the principles of how public servants are supposed to behave.”

Reasons for hope

In the final session, moderated by Griffith, the judge said he places himself “firmly in the camp of Chicken Little — the sky is falling” when it comes to the state of polarization in America today, and he asked the panelists what keeps them up at night.

Martha Minow, former dean of Harvard Law School and now 300th Anniversary University Professor at Harvard Law, said she routinely asks students if they are hopeful, and “many, many are not, and that is the end of our future if our young people are not hopeful.” The students’ lack of hope is also a reflection of society at large, she said.

Yuval Levin, AEI’s director of social, cultural and constitutional studies, said he, too, is concerned about the lack of hope in public life in America, but said that “hope is a really distinct virtue” and often misunderstood.

“Hope is not optimism. Hope is not the sense that things are going to be fine. That’s almost never a wise view. Don’t be an optimist. ... Hope says things are up to us, and they could be good if we are good. And that sense, which has defined the American character in moments of crisis in the past — not all, but the ones we’ve gotten out of strongest — is absent now.

He went on to say, “There’s not nearly enough hope, certainly among the young, there’s not enough hope in our politics. Everybody approaches the future with the sense that between us and the future, there’s some calamity. And I’ve come to think that view is an escape from responsibility. ... That is a way of not actually thinking about the future as belonging to us and being our responsibility.”

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However, Levin, the author of the forthcoming book “American Covenant: How the Constitution Unified Our Nation — and Could Again,” said Americans are also wrong in thinking that our democracy is just one election away from collapse.

“People have a crazy view of the stakes of our politics. Everybody thinks the next election will determine the future of human civilization, and our political system at its best is built to help us reduce the stakes of our politics. The next election is just an election. There’s going to be another one after that. If we get it wrong, we’ll get another chance at this,” Levin said.

He later went on to say, “Unity does not mean thinking alike. The premise of our system is that we’re not going to think alike.” Unity, instead, means acting together, he said, and the way forward is through coalition building and “the broadening of majorities.”

“If we understood unity that way, it is achievable,” he said.

At the conclusion, Griffith quoted President Dallin H. Oaks, first counselor in the First Presidency of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, who has said, “On contested issues, we (should) seek to moderate and to unify.”

Minow said Utah has set an example in governance amid polarization, with leadership that puts the common good ahead of subgroups in a way that is “absolutely breathtaking and says to me it can be done, even if it means that I’ll still have my beliefs, but I cannot impose them on you. ... The Utah Compromise, if you don’t know it, is worth studying, and I’m trying myself to collect examples like this of people and accomplishments to hold up.”


Levin noted, however, that some people wrongly see moderation as “a surrender of principle” rather than what it is: making adjustments in your approach that allow you to persuade others successfully.

Political leaders need to understand that “fighting for your constituents” should mean “reaching an end that advances your purpose” — not “stand across from other people and yell at them. That’s not fighting; that’s failing,” Levin said.

“To come to recognize that kind of moderate temperament as the beginning of successfully fighting for your principles is what it would take for us to have a functional, free society. It takes a lot of learning. That understanding of things is a social achievement. It’s not a natural phenomenon. Americans don’t just fall from the sky. They have to be made by a culture that is ready to teach us to think this way. And maybe that’s what we lack most.”

A full video of the event can be seen here.

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