Our body politic has been contaminated with the coronavirus of polarization. That’s one of the few things we all more or less can agree on.
But disagreement isn’t a social sickness in a democracy. On the contrary, democracy is a collective agreement to disagree. At the heart of any democratic society is the idea that citizens have different opinions, that we have the right to express those opinions and to try to implement our ideas, and that we should solve our differences in a peaceful way under pre-established rules.
Our differences aren’t the problem. The problem is that we can’t have a rational discussion about our differences. There’s no single cause for how we got to this point, but there are three different processes that have occurred during the past several decades that have contributed to a situation in which we can barely have a civil discussion about politics. I call it the three forms of gerrymandering.
The first one is the garden variety of gerrymandering. It happens when politicians manipulate the boundaries of districts to secure the election of the “right” candidate. During the 1800s, an average of 45 percent of congressional seats changed hands in each election. In the early 2000s, we had elections in which 95 percent of the incumbents were re-elected. Congressional districts have been redrawn into one-party chiefdoms. The officials have been electing their electorate instead of the other way around.
Both parties have been doing that electoral trick for many decades now. The Democrats and Republicans complain about gerrymandering only when they have been outmaneuvered, not because they want to solve the problem.
The second style of gerrymandering happens “organically,” but it also diminishes our capacity for dialogue. During the last half-century, the coastal states and big cities have become overwhelmingly liberal, while the rural areas and “flyover states” became more conservative. A Republican candidate for president won’t waste money or time during the campaign in New York or California, because he or she knows that it will be almost impossible to win there.
As I write this column, a map showing predictions for a possible Trump –Sanders election reveals just two toss-up states: Wisconsin and Pennsylvania. The third kind of gerrymandering is at the same time a result of and a catalyst for the other two kinds. We could call it sociological — or mental — gerrymandering. Our culture and our public sphere have been divided into two.
The cable news channels offer each side their version of the truth. Colleges and Hollywood “belong” to the left, while talk radio is in the hands of the right. And the internet offers everyone exactly what each of us decides to believe. Many Americans are not in contact with the other side anymore. We live in our little bubbles where everything confirms our beliefs and prejudices. We don’t have many opportunities to talk with the other side, because they don’t live in our neighborhood. We don’t want to talk with them, because our cable channels tell us they are unpatriotic or reactionary idiots.
Do we realize that our democracy is in danger? Are we aware of the gravity of the situation? In the Gospel we read two weeks ago, before the beginning of Lent, Jesus says: “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, love your enemies.”
It is a radical call to be saints, no doubt. Maybe we could start this Lent with a simpler goal: “Talk with people who disagree with you; try not to think of them as your enemies.”
It would be a good exercise for Lent and a good way to behave like citizens of the greatest democracy the world has ever known.