Is there politics after polarization?
By Alberto Mingardi
A few days ago, Politico published a dense piece featuring a number of intellectuals and academics, left and right, suggesting ideas to “unite” the country, as President Biden proposed to do. As a non-US citizen, I am interested more in the method than in the substance of the different ideas proposed in the article.
What is it that does this “unifying”? I30 suppose we are dealing, by necessity, with highly symbolic moves, which won’t necessarily make everybody happy. (This is always difficult in politics, even when we are not directly dealing with taking money out of somebody’s pocket to give it to somebody else.) Such moves should, broadly speaking, restore the conditions for a more tranquil partisanship. The problem with “political polarization”, in the US as much as in Europe, it is a matter of tone as well as of political posture. How can we restore public debate in which people stop at shouting at each other?
Nick Eberstadt has a point that sounds reasonable to me:
America will not be able to do much healing in the next four years if the 47 percent of America who voted against the president-elect are treated as a subjugated population. Yet knowingly or not, this is how the election’s victors are behaving. A large minority of our nation can scarcely air its opinions in the academy or, increasingly, in the establishment media. Their speech is ever more policed in the workplace and online by rules tantamount to “victor’s justice.
Of course that’s more easily said than done. And some other of the proposals Politico has assembled seem to be pointing in quite the opposite direction. Some of them are down to heart: Abraar Karan proposes a push for better face masks as a way to convince more Americans to use face masks, Caitlin Rivers some sort of national mourning for COVID19 victims.
A fair number of Poltico’s proposals are, however, concerned with history, and they stress the need for a shared narrative which resembles the various streams of “revisionist” history dominating in the last few years. There is certainly a lot to learn in these accounts of history – but is this something that would actually unite Americans as describe above? It seems to me that it would actually go the opposite way, strengthening the tendency toward the sense of “victor’s justice” Eberstadt cautions against.
Hence my question: is “uniting” Americans after a much heated electoral campaign something that people really care about? Is it simply a posture for reassuring the losers? Is it something only those who lost care about? In a battle so symbolically intense, is there any genuine intention to meet halfway, on either side?
It seems to me that one component of political polarization is the belief in a basic difference in the moral fiber of one’s opponent. The more intense the fight, the greater the impression that something essential is at stake: and in these later years, it is seldom policy-related, it is far more personality-related, particularly after Donald Trump. Self-righteousness becomes ubiquitous in a polarized political spectrum. How do you back down? And is there anybody who really wants to do so?