Discover more from Defusing American Anger: A depolarization endeavor
A depolarization-aimed speech I'd like to see President Biden give
To avoid worst-case scenarios, we may need more leaders to attempt to bridge the chasm of our divides
I recently wrote a piece about optimal approaches to lowering us-vs-them polarization. That piece examined what I see as the major levers we have to pull when it comes to changing the culture and making America less polarized. I think one of the main levers is to try to get more people—especially the more influential amongst us—to engage in good faith with the more rational frustrations on the “other side.”
As an attempt to demonstrate some of these concepts in a practical, real-world way, I wrote the following as an example of the kind of speech I’d like to see made by Biden (or some influential Democrat).
Many people will perceive this kind of approach as weak. Our group instincts make us think that such approaches hurt our side, or help the other side. But I think those instincts are wrong: I think these approaches are strong, and take true bravery, and they are likely what will be required to get us out of this mess.
Some liberals’ response to this will be: “But Trump wouldn’t do this kind of thing; why do we have to do this?” To that I’d say: we shouldn’t let our pride, or our anger, get in the way of us doing what we can to solve this problem. Our conflict is complex (as most conflicts are), and our political groups are hard to directly compare: for example, conservatives’ perceptions that liberals dominate culture (media, entertainment, education), and that conservatives are the under-siege underdogs, is a factor in they’re being more okay with belligerent leaders like Trump. And liberals do contribute to our conflicts, even if you may think one side is much worse (for more on that, I recommend this piece).
This speech could take a myriad of forms, using different ideas and different points. There are multiple ways to approach this. But hopefully you’ll get the gist of the idea.
A speech I’d like to see Biden give
President Biden: This is a message to all Americans: those who like me, and those who dislike me. Those who think I'm doing a good job, and those who think I'm doing a horrible job.
Because, let's face it: a lot of people don’t like me. A lot of us don’t like each other. America is, as they say, divided... polarized... in conflict. Whatever word you want to use, no matter which side you may be on these things, we can probably agree on that: we are divided.
Not all of us, mind you; we have a lot more in common than we tend to think; but enough of us are angry at each other to make a big difference. I probably don’t need to tell you that.
And I think we should talk about that more. I don't think we talk about it enough. Because we're not the only country that's gone through these things. Many countries are divided these days. This is a natural human thing we're going through: when there’s a lot of us, we tend to divide into us-vs-them camps, each with very different views of the world, each viewing the “other side” through a suspicious and angry lens.
We tend to act as if America is unique, and we are in some ways, but not in this: not in how angry we’ve become with each other. That part can play out the same no matter what the specific issues are—no matter what the history of a country is.
So I want to talk more about our divides. Because I think when we avoid talking about these things, we make the problem worse. We need to engage more with each other's ideas and beliefs, and that includes the things we find infuriating about the other side—the things where we think "how the hell can these people believe these things?" We need to talk more with each other.
And I'll confess: I haven't been that great on these things in the past. I'm someone who's said some insulting things about Republicans. And I'm not the only Democrat who's done that; there's been far too much of that.
For example, I don’t think the "MAGA Republicans" language I’ve used has been helpful. Because even though I have many things I can criticize about Trump and various Republicans, about what I see as their bad and wrong and divisive behaviors and beliefs—it doesn’t help to paint all Trump voters with a one-size-fits-all brush. Not all Trump voters are the same, just as not all Democrat voters are the same.
I realize that people have their reasons for respecting Trump, and I know that not everyone who votes for Trump is an extremist, or a racist, or a fascist—those kinds of things are said far too often by people. I want to let you know that I do see some of the things that concern Trump voters, and that make them angry. For example, there was a lot of unfair, exaggerated, and biased news coverage about the alleged Trump-Russia connection. There have been some good analyses of those things and I see that.
And there were too many influential Democrats who called Trump's election illegitimate in 2016. There was not a good reason to do that, and that's a whole topic we could talk about for a long time, but long story short: it's wrong to call an election illegitimate without very good reasons to do so. It's bad for America; it's a dangerous thing, no matter who does it.
I could keep talking about many other things—there’s a lot to say here. But I just want to say: I do understand what drives some of the frustration on the part of Trump voters. I see it.
But I also want to say: our us-vs-them anger and emotions can greatly distort our perspectives. It can make us filter for those things we want to believe. This is a huge, complex world—we are a country of 330 million people. And when we're angry and looking for a fight, it's easy to filter all the things that happen in this big country and use what we find to build our narratives of who's right and who's wrong—who’s good and who’s evil.
And I am not saying this is just a Republican problem; it's a human problem. I see Democrats doing this too much, too: of being too antagonistic, of being insulting, of being too pessimistic, of being too sky-is-falling. Of taking a rare or one-off event from this huge, great nation and using it to say, “Look at how bad these people are” or “Look at how bad this country is.”
I think more of us need to step back from this abyss, this darkness of animosity and contempt—and try to be more humble… to have more humility. More of us should be willing to question our certainty about the things going on around us—because we know our us-vs-them anger can make us overly certain about things. When we're angry, it feels good to be certain and sure of ourselves. Nuance and complexity and giving other people the benefit of the doubt—all that stuff takes a back seat when we’re angry.
I get these things. We are going through a hard time. We are going through things that have led to a lot of heartache for other countries, and a lot of turmoil, and a lot of violence. We are going through things that have destroyed other countries.
We may be on the precipice of very bad things. Or we may not be. It’s up to us.
All this is why I try to be forgiving, and try to see the best in people. I don't always succeed. I fail sometimes. I get angry. This is hard on me, too. You try being a politician in this environment! (smile, pause for laughter) But I try to remember that we are all going through a hard thing. And I think we need to talk about that more.
So this is my promise to you: I will try to be more generous with people, and I'll try to engage with good-faith criticisms, and I'll try to talk more about our divides. I want to help heal this divide, and not be too proud or angry to help do my part to fix it.
Now to be clear: this doesn't mean I won't criticize some of you Republicans: there are beliefs some Republicans have that I think are just plain bad, and even dangerous. Just as you likely believe that about some Democrat-side beliefs. But I will try to separate my criticisms of those ideas from the people who hold them: I’ll try to be, as they say, “soft on people but hard on ideas.”
Because, for one thing, when you insult people, you make them dig in more, you make them more defensive and righteous—you help create the very things you’re upset about. And I think we all do that too much on both sides: we rile each other up too much.
I think this is the path forward for America. To work hard for what we believe in, while trying to be as respectful to each other as we can. We aren't as divided as we think—even as many of us do strongly disagree about big things. Both of these things can be true. We are all people, with human frailties and fallibilities. And we are all Americans, engaged in a great and important experiment: we should see it as important to America, and to the world, to show that we can disagree strongly but not hate each other, and to not allow ourselves to be destroyed by hate. We can be, as we have been in the past, an example to the world.
Thank you, and God bless America.
Additional thoughts from other people
Daniel Stone is the author of Undue Hate: A Behavioral Economic Analysis of Hostile Polarization in US Politics and Beyond, a book about polarization—specifically the aspect of how conflict makes us have distorted, overly pessimistic views of each other. I wanted to share his thoughts on this piece:
I love the basic point you make here: we need recognition at the top that polarization is a huge problem now, and thoughts on what we can do about it. Top politicians discussing this would be helpful but the big question of course is: What are concrete actions we could take going forward?
A few thoughts: I love the idea of third party mediation for Congress (Tim Kaine proposed this a few years ago). There's also the idea of one side making a sacrifice in an effort to repair the broader relationship. I'm intrigued by major changes to our political system like sortition, or completely eliminating the Democrat and Republican parties and starting from scratch. [Author’s note: for some other systemic-change ideas, see this post by David Foster.]
I don't know if any of these ideas are at all feasible. But I do think we likely need some major policy changes to shift things, and I think top Democrat and Republican leaders should commit will and resources to figure out what changes we can make and should make (an anti-polarization Manhattan Project!).
In the meantime simply talking about this more is a useful step, especially calling out politicians on each side for polarizing speech/actions, and encouraging them to call each other out for this.
Taylor Dotson is the author of The Divide: How Fanatical Certitude Is Destroying Democracy. Taylor writes:
How refreshing would it be for an American politician, especially the President, to say something like this and mean it! One of the ways in which polarization is so destructive is that hostilities of the election cycle bleed into the everyday work of politicians, undercutting the possibility for honest negotiation and good faith compromises. When political officials are both hard on ideas and hard on people, good old fashioned politics doesn’t happen.
To build on Daniel Stone’s question about what concrete actions we should take, I think it’s worthwhile to imagine how the policies proposed by the president or in the halls of Congress might have to change. Polarization builds not just on nastiness and mutual mistrust, but also on the fact that the laws that Democrats and Republicans propose and pass are too often the opposite of compromises. Texas bill SB 14, for example, outright bars gender-affirming care for minors, while a proposed law in California threatens to remove custody rights for a parent that doesn’t affirm a potentially gender-dysphoric child’s new identity. Both of these bills inflame the already heated culture war over trans issues.
Political imagination is the biggest causality of polarization. Politicians try to cram through policies that may even be extreme within their own party, and see any concession to the “other side” as morally repugnant. We forget that we might develop policies, for instance, that simultaneously offer a pathway to gender-affirming care for minors while also respecting conservatives’ worries that gender clinics are making life-altering medical decisions without sufficient oversight.
President Biden could do more to help depolarize American politics by being an exemplar by political imagination, by laying out reasonable compromises when urging Congress to act on important issues or when drafting executive orders. No doubt that it’s fair for Democrats to worry that Republicans will demand still more concessions, in their view, watering down already compromised policy. But the risk that ongoing pernicious polarization poses to our country is more important, in my view, than scoring short-term political victories. Democracy is a long haul.