Photo: Flickr by Gage Skidmore
By Luke Phillips
Depolarization, as we at Better Angels see it, is not so much about reducing partisanship or increasing moderation, as it is about re-building social ties and relationships across partisan divides, and reducing individuals’ sense of disgust for people of opposing political opinions.
Re-building social ties across the political divide, and reducing disgust held for people of opposing political opinions. Of the various things good depolarization work does, those are two of them. And in my unofficial view, they are the absolutely crucial components of whatever end-result the work achieves. Any other work, no matter how moderating or nonpartisan, is not really depolarizing, if it does not work to normalize social relations across the political divide and reduce cross-political contempt and disgust. It might still be good and worthy- but it is not truly depolarization, as I understand the concept.
There are some implications of this, which might at first seem obvious and unsurprising, but upon further reflection can seem quite radical.
The first implication- depolarization work must be in principle universal, and cannot be limited to a particular subgroup of people. It cannot be solely a question of reducing contempt across the main avenue of the red-blue divide, of finding shared humanity in people who are as far to the opposite side of the political spectrum as you are to yours. It must be extended, at least in spirit if perhaps not in program, to every member of whatever political unit we are attempting to depolarize.
Depolarization work in the United States must include an openness to every individual of whatever political belief and social background in the United States. It is not enough to be a moderate conservative and have a photo-op with your moderate liberal neighbor, although doing that is certainly a good thing and a good start. It must be open to including- and this is where it gets tricky- people whose political views are so far out of the mainstream that they are not especially committed to depolarization for its own sake.
Among reds, that means being able to see the humanity in the intersectional feminists and the urban anarcho-socialists and the cosmopolitan Davos attendees who manipulate reality in Silicon Valley. Among blues, that means being able to see the humanity in the ultra-traditionalist sects of Evangelicalism and the alt-right Twitter trolls and the big-moneyed corporatists who pour money into right-wing media outlets. To defend the American order, one must see people who implicitly or explicitly oppose that order as being members of that order, worthy of fellow citizenship and possessing the rights of American citizens. In America, there is a high bar for treason.
All this can be incredibly distasteful and probably goes against one’s immediate moral sensibilities (it certainly goes against mine.) But without it, depolarization among moderate friends can be justifiably mistaken for a technocratic-centrist sort of tribalism, rather than what it really is- a radical commitment to certain principles of humanity and civility and humility, with no exceptions, even in a polarized world where we necessarily must practice a far grittier politics. It really is radical. If you are willing to condition yourself to finding some kind of humanity and value in an unreconstructed white supremacist or revolutionary anarchist merely on principle, isn’t it somewhat easier to come to common ground with your racially-insensitive-but-not-truly-racist grandparents or your self-identified anarcho-socialist and college-aged nieces and nephews?
This universal across-the-spectrum depolarization is not, I acknowledge, the kind of thing Better Angels is equipped to do in its workshop or debate programs at the moment. The gap between the red and blue coalitions in America, and their large numbers of moderate liberals and moderate conservatives, is large enough and growing fast enough that the organization must focus its work there. It is, nonetheless, something worth keeping in mind, as the political consensus crumbles and ideas further and further out of the mainstream come back into viral vogue.
A second implication- depolarization must be radically self-aware, inner-directed first, and always self-assessing, before it critiques and condemns the polarizing tendencies of the other side. This is true both of individuals and of broader political groups. One of the standard practices of the Better Angels Red-Blue Workshop, one of our signature program offerings, is a fishbowl session wherein all participating reds think deeply about their own political leanings and try to figure out accurate critiques of that, while all participating blues observe; the process is then done among blues, observed by the reds. This exercise in fishing out one’s subjectivity, in figuring out what goes unspoken and making it explicit, is always revealing.
And, as much as any other particular practice in Better Angels’s programs, it is a format that reveals the humanity of Americans talking about politics, people with thoughts and dreams and prejudices and self-understandings and limits and blinkers to their vision, not disembodied rational minds expounding principles or computation machines calculating the costs and benefits of statements before discerning perfect and complete solutions and statements.
This realization and acceptance of subjectivity and personal limitedness is, to put it mildly, not really our national culture’s go-to mode of public engagement. It is not even in sync with America’s general trends of self-understanding, faux-authenticity faddishness notwithstanding. Our American embrace of expertise in technical matters, of sheer success and professionalism in competitive matters, and of moral self-evidence and self-reliance in pretty much everything else, has always framed our self-descriptions over the centuries (regardless of how much unspoken republican political orthodoxy, expansive economic opportunity, and functionally Protestant religious sociology forms the bedrock of that social freedom.) We don’t like to admit our biases, because we don’t like to admit that we have them. Sometimes we don’t even know what they are, or that they are there.
And thus, we Americans are ever-prone, perhaps moreso than any other society in world history, to the most ludicrously unaware kinds of pious hypocrisy. This is evident to anybody who follows 21st Century American political satire, be it of the Onion/Bablyon Bee variety or of the somewhat more irreverent Team America: World Police/Idiocracy type. This pious hypocrisy makes our polarization worse- more deeply-felt, yet more shallowly-rooted. Much of the content of the Better Angels workshop programs helps to counteract this, and the negative effects it has on how we treat each other, simply by forcing us to look in the mirror.
But it is clear that in public life, not everyone looks in the mirror. Most of us in Better Angels, if you press us hard enough, can tell you, regret in our voices, of the times we’ve slid into bad habits of other-demonization, callous mockery, and prior judgment of others’ political beliefs. (I certainly can.) This, from a coterie of individuals who’ve all committed themselves to national depolarization, continual self-assessment, a quest to always find the humanity in their opponents! If we of Better Angels are so fallible, how much the same are our fellow Americans who have not committed to depolarization, or even heard of it?
Depolarization, as a personal habit and as a political cause, is neither a petition seeking signatures nor a degree awarded upon completion of a program. Depolarization is a personal habit just like honesty or cheerfulness; it is a social and political cause just like nationhood or economic dynamism. It requires continual cultivation by anyone practicing it, and continual re-assessment by its community of supporters. If an individual, or worse, a movement, claims to stand for depolarization and then acts in ways inconsistent with depolarization, the cause of depolarization has been harmed more than it has been helped.
And because of this, it is crucial that the individual committed to depolarization is aware of their own actions and ideas and social context at all times, because more than most other political causes, it is terribly easy to betray the cause of depolarization unintentionally in the process of fighting for it. Politics is, by its nature, polarizing; depolarization as a political goal is, therefore, always somewhat paradoxical and liable to inconsistencies. There are good reflection guides to navigating this- David Blankenhorn’s “The Seven Habits of Highly Depolarizing People” is probably the best, I think- but the tension is there regardless.
With the above two principles in mind, let’s look at some instances of what happens when Americans act in partly, but not wholly, depolarizing ways. Sometimes you see something kind of like depolarization, but upon further inspection find it to be less a true act of de-polarization and more an incomplete imitator that does as much harm as good- what one might call an instance of “Half-Depolarization.” Two media moments will suffice to illustrate the point. I am a red, a conservative, so both of these examples are cases of my fellow-travelers on the political right engaging in Half-Depolarization. A blue colleague of mine on the left, however, could probably find equal and opposite examples in liberal media circles just as easily.
First off, my good friend John Wood spoke on a panel recently at the Conservative Political Action Conference’s (CPAC’s) satellite panel at Pepperdine University. The topic of the panel was Republican politics in Democrat-dominated California; one of John’s co-panelists was long-serving GOP Congressman Tom McClintock (CA-4) from the Sierra foothills of California’s Central Valley, a Republican party man and an institution both on Capitol Hill and in the California GOP. When prompted about civility and bipartisanship, Congressman McClintock offered this:
“When you see the ferocity with which the authoritarian left is suppressing free speech, not just on university campuses now but in general society, I mean I’ve got so many conservative friends who say they won’t even get into a discussion anymore because ‘it’s just not worth it.’ We have to recognize, again, that this is a hallmark of authoritarian regimes… and we are seeing it arise now in our country. That’s why we’ve got to be such vigorous defenders of the First Amendment… and that’s why we’ve got to engage in this discussion in every form that we can find…”
Congressman McClintock’s remarks, in this quote and throughout the panel, were explicitly partisan, explicitly blaming the left for fanning the flames of polarization through its radical ideas and styles, and gave no evidence of a desire for conversation save for the purpose of exposing the left’s kooky views and shutting them down in public debate. McClintock conceded that it is good to be civil and it is good to come together across the aisle- but he also implied very heavily that the left is to blame for deepening polarization, that it is the responsibility of the left to concede first, that the right is only acting defensively, and that the right is not to blame for polarization, and will only come to the table when the left does.
An endorsement of depolarization that primarily accuses the other side of the aisle of committing polarization, and says that that side needs to stop being so polarizing, without turning the same analysis to one’s own side, is in fact an act of polarization. It suggests to listeners on the same side as the speaker, that their side is blameless and that the other side is guilty.
It is an interesting reflection on the state of American polarization, that acknowledgments of the goodness of depolarization are done so frequently on partisan, polarizing grounds, and contribute to the phenomenon they ostensibly are meant to critique. For an example on the left, look no further than Hillary Clinton’s 2018 statement that “You cannot be civil with a political party that wants to destroy what you stand for, what you care about. That’s why I believe, if we [Democrats] are fortunate enough to win back the House or the Senate, that’s when civility can start again.”
This is a Half-Depolarization because it, at the very least, acknowledges that our polarizing tendencies are bad and detrimental, and acknowledges that depolarization of some sort is theoretically a good thing. It appeals to its listeners’ better angels ever so slightly, even as it brings out their worse instincts at the same time, confirming to them their rectitude and their opponents’ guilt. But it at least sees some version of the problem, even if it is entirely counterproductive in addressing it.
There’s another kind of Half-Depolarization worth thinking about, this one more genuine. A while back, there was a major media non-event involving Congressman Dan Crenshaw and Saturday Night Live comedian Pete Davidson. Davidson- doing as comedians do- went too far in pushing the boundaries, and made a joke about Congressman Crenshaw’s combat injuries, suggesting that because of his eyepatch, he looked like the “hitman in a porno movie” among other things.
Because this kind of joke is usually and justifiably tasteless and out-of-bounds, there was an immediate reaction among conservatives and veterans’ groups, and an immediate kerfuffle on social media. Normally when something like this happens, the firestorm goes on for a few days or weeks, someone gets fired to satisfy whichever online mob is calling for heads, and in time the flames die out over the coals of worsened partisan hatred.
But this time, something different happened. Congressman Crenshaw was invited to appear on a subsequent episode of Saturday Night Live, and there, in front of millions of viewers, sitting next to a repentant Pete Davidson, who a week before had insulted him, Congressman Crenshaw publicly forgave Davidson (and popped a few more jokes as well.) And then, Crenshaw gave a short message to SNL’s viewers: “Americans can forgive one another. We can remember what brings us together as a country and still see the good in each other.” It was a wonderful moment, something that can and should serve as an inspiration to us all. Commentators across the spectrum lauded Davidson’s apology, Crenshaw’s acceptance and forgiveness, and the general management of the situation by everyone involved.
In recent months, though, it’s become clear to me that Congressman Crenshaw is just as susceptible as his fellow Republican members of Congress to be a partisan Republican. He baits liberals on social media and is not above engaging his Democratic colleagues in ways that are polarizing, even if they are not particularly unique in context.
Some of Crenshaw’s left-leaning critics have dismissed the SNL incident as a mere publicity stunt, little more than a cynical, run-of-the-mill, partisan hack’s attempt to discredit his opponents by showing how much more magnanimous than them he is, and far overshadowed by his longer-running record of engaging in petty squabbles and polarizing the discourse in lower-stakes moments. A more recent example- Crenshaw seems to have been uncharitably mischaracterizing Congresswoman Ilhan Omar’s statements about the events of 9/11 (although I haven’t followed that story closely enough to understand it in depth.)
This perspective paints Crenshaw as a standard, partisan, polarizing political figure, who for a brief moment shined in the eye of the public and showcased a depolarizing magnanimity- a depolarizing magnanimity that serves his political ends, and does not indicate a true shift in his general behavior, but does suggest that it is occasionally in the interest even of political hacks to be depolarizing. Even if this is the right way to understand Congressman Crenshaw- is it not a good sign?
Crenshaw, by accepting Pete Davidson’s apology on the air and forgiving him, did a few things. First off, he showcased an incredibly rare act in today’s partisan political climate- given the opportunity to hit back hard, he did not hit back hard. He took the moment to give a small lecture to Americans- on the SNL monologue, and then in an op-ed at the Washington Post– on the value of not being overly petty about politics. And before he sank back into the relative obscurity suffered by most members of Congress at most times, he showed for a brief moment how to be not just a political hack, but a political hack who could transcend political hackery and make a real statement towards something else, if only for a moment.
How do you reconcile someone being polarizing- or at least, someone not being depolarizing- throughout most of their public life, but then moving mountains for the cause of depolarization in particular moments of their public life?
It’s complicated, as all things are in politics, but I think the easiest way to think of it is the old dictum that only Nixon could go to China– only a strident and known anti-Communist could negotiate with Communists without being accused of softness, as goes the American historical interpretation. So with Crenshaw, only a conservative can convince conservatives of the need for depolarization; only a liberal can so convince liberals.
When the very centrist conservative columnist David Brooks talks about the need for depolarization and civic friendship, he is convincing to a slew of people in the mainstream center of American opinion. But he doesn’t normally make many inroads with the progressive left or the conservative right.
A Dan Crenshaw, on the other hand, doesn’t need to prove his conservative bona fides to anyone, in part because he is generally a conventionally partisan figure. His coming to the middle and engaging in a publicity stunt, or an act of genuine civic-mindedness, whatever it was, holds a lot more political weight than the same act would be if done by someone less prominently conservative.
Still, Crenshaw does continually engage in polarizing acts, and therefore can’t be considered to be a public figure engaging constantly in depolarization. The SNL incident was only a Half-Depolarization.
All things being considered, Crenshaw’s Half-Depolarization seems to me to have been far superior to that demonstrated at CPAC by Congressman Tom McClintock. Crenshaw and McClintock are both, indeed, party men- conservative elected officials who swim in the mainstream of conservative opinion. They both, therefore, are generally polarizing in some sense, as part of their public lives. But on the subject of depolarization, in these two particular incidents, they aligned their opinions and their actions very differently.
Congressman McClintock gave lip service to depolarization, proceeded to blame the left for being polarizing, and thereby contributed to polarization, knowingly or not. Congressman Crenshaw, on the other hand, forgave his political opponent in public, and committed an act of depolarization, before proceeding to discuss the benefits and virtues of depolarization to a television audience. Yes, perhaps Crenshaw’s depolarization was temporary; but it seems to have been genuine in the moment it was committed, and added an episode of civic friendship to the annals of American history, in a time desperately starved of such incidents.
Obviously, it would be preferable if Crenshaw and McClintock both talked the depolarizing talk, and walked the depolarizing walk, at all times and in all circumstances. But given that people are people, we can only ask so much of them; and what Crenshaw did in this incident was the best we could probably ask to see.