“So here, then, is the last fifty years of American politics summarized: we became more consistent in the party we vote for not because we came to like our party more, but because we came to dislike the opposing party more. Even as hope and change sputter, fear and loathing proceed.”
I fear for the future of the United States of America.
Until recent years, if you asked how much the United States changed over the nearly 70 years I have lived, I might have said that it had changed, but, for good or bad, it is not fundamentally different from what it was in 1951. I thought of this country as a stable exemplar of democracy.
But I have begun to wonder about our democracy and its stability. Two recent books, Why We’re Polarized by Ezra Klein and Twilight of Democracy by Anne Applebaum, leave me wondering if we could lose our democratic republic as have countless democracies during my lifetime.
When change is incremental, we are often blind to monumental shifts that amass over time. In 1950, The American Political Science Association published a paper coauthored by many of the country’s most eminent political scientists. In it they pleaded for a more polarized political system. They lamented the Democrat and Republican parties each contained too much diversity, looked too much alike, and worked together too easily. In those days, when going to the polls, many citizens split their ballots, caring more about issues than party affiliation.
Things began to change dramatically in the 1960s. Prior to 1964, the Democratic Party was the party of the Dixiecrats, southern democrats who pledged allegiance to Jim Crow laws and “separate but equal’ policies, ignoring the 1954 Supreme Court decision in Brown v Board of Education. After the passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964, and the emergence of Barry Goldwater and his allegiance to states’ rights, the Dixiecrats jumped parties. Lyndon Johnson, the night he signed that legislation, was said to lament, “I think we just delivered the South to the Republican Party for a long time to come.”
As divisions grew—as the parties became ever more distinct—Americans began to choose sides, not unlike we do with sports teams. Voting became less about issues and more about making sure your “team” won. As Klein said above, voters came to dislike the other party more and more, allowing fear and loathing to proceed.
While an inspiring future vision can encourage people to act, inciting fear calls forth powerful passions and unpredictable behaviors. In the face of abject fear, rationality and logic exit the stage, replaced by irrational and senseless acts. Given enough fear, anger can easily become the appetizer we choose, followed often by an entrée of violence.
Over the past two decades, fearful rhetoric has come to dominate our political discourse. How many recent political campaigns promised policies aimed at a brighter future versus asserting that a vote for the opponent would give the other party the power to destroy you and everything you love? And, of those who promised a path to the promised land, how many either changed their rhetoric or went down to defeat?
In her book, Anne Applebaum recalls a conversation with behavioral economist Karen Stenner. Stenner reminded her that people are often attracted to authoritarian ideas because they are bothered by complexity. The work of Nobel Award-winning economist Daniel Kahneman (Thinking Fast and Slow) reminds us the human mind is lazy. We will typically choose a simple, albeit errant, answer to a problem, rather than doing the work of challenging our assumptions. Is it any wonder, then, that we have witnessed the emergence of QAnon, countless conspiracy theories, and authoritarian rhetoric? They offer simple, if not irrational, answers in a complex world.
Our 32nd president, Franklin D Roosevelt famously said, “the only thing we have to fear is…fear itself — nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.” Unless we recall these extraordinary words, learn to speak to one another with compassion and understanding, and face our fears together, we just may face them torn asunder.