By Tom Krattenmaker
Harvest time is here, and we are reaping exactly what we have sown as body politic: division, derision, a country more polarized than it’s been in decades—and public that is almost unanimously unhappy about all of it.
The all-consuming presidential race has produced front-runners with unfavorable ratings of historic proportions. There is polarization not only between the Democratic and Republican parties but within them as well. Supporters of Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders are increasingly angry at one another, like the candidates themselves, as the Democratic race begins to mimic what has been going on for months on the Republican side.
It’s a relief to know we agree on at least one thing: According to a new poll released this week, a whopping 95 percent of Americans agree that “people on opposite sides of an issue demonize each other so severely that they make finding common ground impossible.”
Apparently the monster we have is not the monster we want. This survey, commissioned by the nonprofit group Q and released this week at the Christian organization’s annual conference, finds that three-quarters of Americans agree with the proposition that “we should stop letting the people on the extreme ends of the issues dominate the discussion on important issues.”
The survey findings bear out what pundits and political scientists have been saying for years. Factors including the Internet, rapid social change, and mobilize-the-base political strategies are conspiring to shrink common ground to a thin sliver of real estate.
Q founder and director Gabe Lyons, who commissioned the study, hopes people take heart from the findings and insist on something better than the politics of division and demonization—what columnist Arthur C. Brooks calls the Polarization Industrial Complex. If you object to the ugly status quo, Lyons says, “You are not in the minority. Your neighbors, friends, and colleagues feel the same way.”
So what can we do?
Lyons thinks we wait in vain if we expect relief and reform to come from political, religious, or business leaders or organizations. He’s right. Especially about politics. The people who have broken our political system have benefited handsomely and are probably not feeling particularly motivated to enact big changes.
For example, strategists, candidates, and elected officials who have driven the GOP further and further right would tell you it works. The strategy has gotten candidates elected and put the GOP in control of the majority of statehouses (while making it ever harder, of course, for the party to win the biggest prize of all, the White House). In different ways, the progressive movement has gone in for its own purity politics.
The result is that anyone speaking with the much-needed voice of moderation has virtually no chance of making it through the gauntlet of primaries to become the party nominee for Congress or president. And when it comes to final showdowns between the parties’ nominees, contempt for the other side seems to be the most effective way to get people to vote. Attempts to reverse course such as the “No Labels” project have struggled to take flight.
So don’t expect a round of “Kumbaya” to break out any time soon (and if there’s going to be harmonious singing, let’s find a fresher song). But that doesn’t mean that people of good will and a willingness to respect their political “others” can’t insist on something better than the dissonance that’s been dominating the playlist.
Lyons’ organization caters to evangelical Christians and educates them to be effective forces for good and reconciliation. In his new book, Good Faith, co-authored with David Kinnaman of the Barna Group, Lyons lays out ways for Christians to publicly apply their faith beyond culture war politics. Such as:
Talk with people of differing views and truly listen. Avoid mouthing the usual talking points at high volume. Stop resorting to conversational trump cards that don’t mean much to your conversation partner (which in the case of Christians means eschewing, “But my pastor says …”)
“Good faith” is also a promising path for those of us who are not part of Lyons’ evangelical constituency. The term has secular meaning, too, , of course, It refers to the practice of conducting one’s affairs with sincerity and fairness, even when the other party is not your friend or not like you.
“Respect.” It’s the song that most of us want to hear. How can get it played?