The stability of our democracy is contingent not only on the legal safe guards outlined in the constitution, but on the maintenance of a tolerant, and well-educated electorate. Seymour Lipset argues that public cohesion and support for the democratic process is essential in creating a democracy which can sustain itself over multiple generations and survive transitions of power. If people do not buy into the democratic system and would rather fight than compromise, no legislative framework, no matter how meticulously planned, can keep the structure afloat. One need not look far in our contemporary political landscape to see that this social requisite is in jeopardy. If we are to address this crisis of public trust and cohesion and guard against the challenges to democracy seen throughout the world, we must reinvigorate the sense of mutual respect amongst citizens and cultivate tolerance on an individual level.
Countless articles have been written examining the ways in which Twitter, Facebook, and the 24-hour news cycle have erased any sense of civility found in public discourse and facilitated tribalism by increasing the quantity and decreasing the quality and diversity of media we consume. The consequences of this can be seen in online reactions to the Jussie Smollet case. Regardless of the whether the claims made by either side were correct, the speed, ferocity, and overall attitude with which politicians, celebrities, and ordinary people either condemned or supported Mr. Smollet was unfit for what should have served as a serious moment to investigate and reflect. This breakdown in effective communication has only exacerbated already rising rates of antisocial behavior. Paul Howe in “Eroding Norms and Democratic Deconsolidation”, noted how since the early 1980s there has been a steady uptick in the degree to which people view socially damaging behaviors as acceptable, especially those ages 18-24. This growing mentality which puts the interests of the self over the interests of the whole is fundamentally incompatible with our political system given that compromise and self-sacrifice are essential to the democratic process.
We must of course also take into consideration the role of President Trump. Trump’s style of campaigning and governing is in a word blunt. Prior to his entrance into politics, the behavior of politicians was often measured as to elicit as little controversy as possible. Trump has seemingly adopted the polar opposite approach. His opponents view his rhetoric as blatantly flying in the face of inclusion and equality, undermining the work that has been to improve America’s tolerance of diversity. His statements regarding undocumented immigrants, women, and native Americans have been at minimum in bad taste, and at times seem specifically designed to infuriate his opponents. However, to his followers this an affirmation of everything they have been feeling, someone willing to make their plight as struggling Americans a priority, break the pretense which surrounds identity politics, and demolish the D.C. status quo.
Neither side is completely without merit. The economic needs of poor working-class Americans have largely gone unaddressed by both the left and the right, and in the face of increasing income inequality many Americans feel that they have been forgotten by the elite globalist class. It should be noted however that Trump was only able to take advantage of this frustration given the heated ideological stalemate which griped political discourse. In the words of William A. Galston, the recent rise in populism represents, “an illiberal democratic response to undemocratic liberalism”. Put plainly, Trump’s presidency represents a push back from those who feel that the democratic process has been unresponsive and decided that civil debate was simply not a tolerable option. Furthermore, the he argues that the broader trend of tribalism in politics represents a threat to the social precedencies of a liberal democracy, rather than a direct challenge to the system of democracy itself. All that said, it is not far-fetched to believe that doubts about democracy as a whole combined with partisan mistrust could result in further, more concrete democratic backsliding. If Trump was to lose in 2020 and refuse to concede his position, then we could very well see the anger advance beyond message boards and town halls, and onto the streets.
This aura of political hostility is particularly acute on college campuses. In 2017, mass riots broke out at UC Berkeley after conservative speakers had been invited to campus. The protesters overwhelmed the authorities, smashed windows, and started fires, resulting in numerous injuries and over $100,000 in damages. Their banners read, “This is War”, and “Become Ungovernable”. The threat possessed by a group of people who are so zealous in their beliefs as to literally become ungovernable is obvious, and while this was an isolated and rare incident, it does highlight that even universities, centers dedicated to promoting diverse schools of critical thought, have fallen victim to forces which drive people to lash out rather than engage in debate and conversation. As such, the ideological homogeneity found in American academic circles, media, and our own personal news streams only serves to create attitudes which react with opposing ideologies in explosive and unproductive ways.
Ultimately what is needed is a fundamental shift in the way citizens empathize with one another. The viability of this change, as well as where it shall come from remains uncertain. What is certain however is that if we continue to view any challenge to our respective narratives as an existential challenge to our core values, then we cannot expect to bridge the gaps which threaten to undermine the American experiment and democracy the world over.
Photo by Scott Strazzante, Creative Commons Zero License