The last several weeks have brought to the fore multiple serious issues with our society at present. The horrifying murder of George Floyd underscored the need for a long-overdue reformation of America’s police system; the President’s authoritarian rhetoric and tactics in response to the largely peaceful protests nationwide served as further proof of his unfitness for office; the rationalizations offered by too many in the media and the political left, in response to the incidents where peaceful protests descended into violence and looting, have exposed a deficit in the integrity that is essential for these important discussions; and the efforts of both sides to silence speech that dissents from their orthodoxy illuminates the broader erosion of civil society that has been occurring for years. All of this, of course, while still in the midst of the worst pandemic in more than a century.
Many on the political left watch the news today and see only Trump spouting his hateful and dangerous rhetoric, praising the police while dismissing the plethora of shocking videos of police brutality that have emerged – a juxtaposition with disquieting similarities to what we observe from leaders of true authoritarian police states. They see federal police shoot tear gas to disperse peaceful protestors in Lafayette Square so the President could get a photo-op in front of St. John’s church. They watch all of this, all happening with enthusiastic support from the President’s vocal base on the right, and they are convinced that America is in its own Weimar Republic phase, poised to fully succumb to Trump’s gradual fascist takeover.
Conversely, many on the political right watch their news today and can see only clip after clip of the violent riots, looting, and destruction of property. They see the refusal of so many on the left to unequivocally condemn the mayhem, apparently because they agree with the reasons behind the initial protests. They see an editor at a prominent newspaper forced to resign for publishing a Republican Senator’s op-ed – which, while controversial, expressed a view also held by a majority of the American public. They see 6 square blocks of Seattle occupied and sealed off by protestors, who subsequently declare it liberated from the rest of the country, and the city’s mayor respond by characterizing the hostile takeover as “a peaceful expression of our community’s collective grief.” They see all of this, and are convinced the Visigoths are at the gates.
As a result, for those of us who still make the effort to be evenhanded, and to interpret these events by examining the facts at hand on their own merit, rather than filtering them through an ideological or partisan lens, and who still make the effort to be open to changing our minds if we’re presented with fresh information that conflicts with our prior assumptions – watching all these rash and ill-conceived reactions and counter-reactions has the potential to drive us to a nihilistic view of our politics. There is an understandable instinct to look at everything going on right now and just give up, and prepare for the Faustian bargain we’ll all inevitably be forced to take (or not) when one of the illiberal sides wins out over the other.
But this negative thinking is misguided. Despite the truly alarming levels of tribalism we see around us, there are also many among us who reject the simplistic worldviews espoused by the loudest voices we are hearing on either side. For instance, while the rallying cry on the left appears to be to “defund the police,” a recent HuffPost poll showed that an overwhelming majority of Americans oppose the idea (in the literal sense), as well as majorities of black Americans, and of registered Democrats. Yet in the same poll, when people were asked about a variety of other police reforms – from banning chokeholds to making it easier to charge officers for using excessive force – a majority of people supported every one of these reforms, despite President Trump’s implicit aversion to or outright rejection of them.
Thus, I believe it is imperative, now more than ever before, that all of us who refuse to align ourselves with the extremists on either side coalesce around a new movement designed to push back from the political center. This movement will be filled with people of profoundly different political beliefs by any conventional measure, but who are all united together by a shared loyalty to the central principles of liberal democracy. It can include people who are pro-life and pro-choice, the religious and non-religious, rural farm-owners and urban apartment dwellers, young and old, black and white, and rich and poor. It will be a representative, diverse assortment of people who wish to see the ideals laid out by the Founding Fathers fully realized for all Americans.
We must be open to making progressive and potentially uncomfortable changes to the system (such as, in this case, reforming our policing) in order to ameliorate our flaws, and to demonstrate to our fellow citizens who feel alienated by the present system that we care about their concerns and are truly committed to addressing them. But we must also make just as strong of a commitment to advocate for these progressive changes through the proper channels provided to us in a liberal democracy, like the ballot box and peaceful protest, and while doing everything we can to reassure those of us who are scared by what may seem to them to be rapid changes taking place that they will still have a voice to express themselves.
As the free-thinking conservative writer David French beautifully put it,
“As time goes by, I grow more and more convinced that the antidote to illiberalism and cruelty comes not through critiques from ideological opponents…but rather through courageous confrontations with erstwhile ideological allies.”
If enough of us would make a commitment to implement this antidote into our political discourse, and defend sacred principles like freedom of speech and the rule of law – even against members of our own partisan tribes – we might just have a fighting chance against the hyperpolarization tearing our country apart.