A person with only the dimmest spark of critical reflectiveness can understand that the United States of America is deeply divided at this point in her history. We are divided economically, racially, regionally, and demographically. Exacerbating these divides is our disagreement on how to deal with them politically.
We can deal with them politically, and we must, by cultivating five essential habits of citizens in a constitutional and democratic republic. However, before we discuss the path toward political unity, we need to take a moment to recognize the depth and breadth of our disunity.
Three Indicators of our Political Disunion
There are many indicators of our deep political disunity. One of the most significant is the deep ideological rift that has opened up between the two parties; indeed, instead of viewing our nation as a one two-party nation, we could just as easily see it as a land mass that contains two one-party nations.
Another indicator is the way members of one party treat members of another. Instead of merely disagreeing with members of the opposing party, we tend to view them as “un-American,” dishonest, stupid, and morally reprehensible. Once we have viewed a person on the other side as an aggregate of ignorance and badness, we give ourselves permission to question their motives, misrepresent their views, slander, and otherwise degrade them.
A final indicator is the way each major party is fragmented. Consider the Republican Party which encompasses social conservatives, libertarians, ethno-nationalists, neoconservatives, and paleoconservatives. The Democratic Party is similar; consider the differences between Bill Clinton, Barack Obama, Al Sharpton, and Bernie Sanders. The 2016 election cycle was a colossal display of each party’s inability to find a candidate that could plausibly represent the interests of its diverse constituencies.
The Temptation to Impose an Authoritarian Union
We must also recognize that, in a sprawling and diverse society such as ours, there are only two paths toward restoring political union. If we wish to maintain order and accomplish things, we must choose whether to trust in authoritarian power plays or engage in democratic politics.
The authoritarian option stems from the attitude that any one group (majority, plurality, or minority) has the right to impose its vision of the good life on everybody else in society, without them having the means or the right to react or respond freely. Russia and Turkey are contemporary examples of democratic authoritarian rule. The United States is a contemporary example of a nation whose major political parties both flirt with the authoritarian temptation.
We see the authoritarian impulse in action when we experience:
- politicians who threaten freedoms of religion, speech, or assembly, rather than letting dissenting communities and associations gather to express and exercise their convictions and values.
- legislators who delegitimize the type of political deal-making and compromise that characterize a healthy democracy. These groups can be found on the left and the right. Concerning them, David Brooks writes, “Ultimately, they don’t recognize other people. They suffer from a form of political narcissism, in which they don’t accept the legitimacy of other interests and opinions. They don’t recognize restraints. They want total victories for themselves and their doctrine.”
- judicial activists who bypass the Constitution, the legislature, and the People in order to install their moral opinions as the law of the land.
- a majority or plurality of citizens who consider their electoral victory an opportunity to “shove it down the throat” of the losing party or parties, seeking the interests of their tribe alone rather than the interests of the entire nation.
Historically, our founding fathers and most of our nation’s leaders have chosen democratic politics. They were well aware of the downside of democratic politics. It is an inefficient and messy process that involves listening to the other parties involved, arguing, negotiating, and compromising. What’s more is that the process of political compromise means that—by definition—we do not get everything “we” want.
In spite of the downside, they chose democratic politics instead of authoritarian power plays. They were less concerned with efficiency and more concerned to restrain political power. So they gave us a constitutional and democratic republic with checks and balances between the branches of government and between the federal and state governments.
I think the founding fathers were right. Given the choice between democratic politics and authoritarian power plays, I choose the former. It might be less efficient and utopian, but it guards against the centralization of power and the shuttering of democratic voices.
A Five-Fold Path Democratic and Republican Path toward Political Union
Given the depth and breadth of our political disunion, therefore, how can ordinary citizens help unify our nation? How can we engage in politics in a sprawling and diverse nation such as our own? How can we resist the authoritarian temptation? We can do so by forming in our lives the habits of democracy. Those habits include:
- Loving our neighbors, even when our neighbor is the ideological “enemy.” In the realm of politics, loving our neighbors means speaking our mind on the issues, but doing so in a way that shows genuine concern, rather than disdain, for the other person. It means listening to people with whom we disagree, seeking the good of the whole society instead of merely our own tribe, admitting when we are wrong and others are right, and refusing to demean or degrade those with whom we disagree.
- Becoming knowledgeable citizens. In an era in which national media outlets have become cheerleaders rather than gatekeepers, we must get our information from multiple outlets rather than limiting ourselves to our chosen favorite. In a day of fake news and misinformation, we must be cautious and discerning as we decide whether to believe a given “take” or interpretation. In a moment in which people’s worldviews are shaped by television, we must read widely and read for ourselves.
- Remaining engaged rather than becoming detached. In the mephitic and effluvial political environment of our day, it is easy to throw up our hands and walk away. But we must resist the temptation. As I wrote here, “a strong and clear focus on the gospel will not cause us to forget about politics and culture for a while; instead, it will renew and reshape our political and cultural interactions, making them into the shape of a cross and undergirding them with the hope of Christ’s return.”
- Supporting political leaders who understand the Constitution and engage in democratic politics. Vote for presidents who have the leadership skills to make things happen without excessive use of executive actions. Vote for legislators who understand how to listen to the other side, negotiate, make appropriate concessions, and move a bill through Congress. Listen to talk show hosts and commentators who are fair and balanced rather than those who are thoughtless cheerleaders for their “friends” and unscrupulous critics of their opponents.
- Cultivating democratic humility. Democracy becomes idolatrous when it conflates the voice of the people with the voice of God. In this unfortunate situation, citizens view their political opinions as holy writ and their will as divine imperative; this sort of confusion and arrogance soon leads to the sort of hatred of neighbor that we rejected in the first point above. Instead we must combine truth and humility. Without humility, a passion for truth will make us political bullies. Without a passion for truth, our humility will lead to relativism or cowardice. But truth and humility together will restore democratic politics.
In response to the deep political disunion we experience, and in spite of the mephitic and effluvial nature of our nation’s public discourse, We the People should eschew the authoritarian temptation by cultivating these five habits of democracy. If we do not, we will be complicit in our nation’s self-sabotage. But if we do, we will join the ranks of those who wish to see our nation’s disunity handled though democratic politics rather than authoritarian power plays.