Zane: Toxic politics but greater freedom? A trade-off we make

December 31, 2013 

Let’s not kid ourselves: 2014 will be another year of political MUD – mean, ugly, divisive.

The battle for Kay Hagan’s Senate seat will be nasty and expensive. Contested House races will be marked by scurrilous charges. The fight for seats in the North Carolina legislature will be a bare-knuckled race to the bottom. Multiply that by 50, and you’ve got a pretty good picture of what’s to come in America.

(Most) politicians are not idiots. They will throw those low-blows because that’s how to win the votes they need. Elections always say more about the led than the leaders.

Nevertheless, I bring some cheery, yet sobering, news for the New Year. The work in progress we call America keeps getting better and better. I’m not talking just about material comforts, which are enjoyed by most citizens, but also the nature of our politics. Taking the long view, we live in a golden age of comity and civility. In ways that matter, we are far kinder to one another than ever before. But – and here’s the sobering part – we have achieved it while becoming less connected with and concerned about one another.

Our politics may be toxic, but they used to be worse: 150 years ago, we were fighting a civil war that ended with Lincoln’s assassination. That was followed by a century of brutal repression, Indian wars, lynchings, race riots and more presidential assassinations. Many of us remember the lethal struggles to win civil rights and to end the Vietnam War.

Today, we’ve put down the sticks and stones, which is why words seem so hurtful.

But that’s not all. Since the 1960s, we have created a far more open and free society. We have dismantled many of the barriers that oppressed women, African-Americans and other minorities. We have also created a social safety net that has all but eliminated truly abject poverty in America.

When I wrote my first column in support of gay rights in 1985, my Yale-educated editor refused to run it because he said readers would think I was a homosexual. Back then, the idea of same-sex marriage – the great civil rights movement of our time – was beyond imagining.

These achievements are not political victories. They are not enlightened ideas imposed on the people. Instead, they reflect an evolving embrace of freedom by Americans, a growing sense that we shouldn’t use laws to prevent people from pursuing their dreams or expressing their desires.

The happy development is tempered by a key, yet often-ignored, force driving these gains – a dynamic that explains why our politics remain so nasty. We have not created a kinder and gentler society through an outpouring of compassion, empathy and common cause. Instead, it has been forged at a time marked by rising solipsism and disconnection. Surveys show that our faith in government hit an all-time low last year and that only a third of Americans believe most people can be trusted. As a result, the spirit of our times is not the brotherhood of man but don’t tread on me.

This great paradox of modern America – the explosion of freedom and mistrust – is fueled by new technologies, which empower and isolate us. iPhones and personal computers have profoundly changed the way we interact with each other. Many, if not most, of us feel more comfortable communicating with and through machines rather than with each other.

Technology has also transformed our economy, creating a widening chasm between those at the top and the rest of America. As Charles Murray documents in his provocative book “Coming Apart,” the wealthiest American households have isolated themselves physically and culturally from the rest of America. Increasingly, we don’t know and understand people who are different from us because we have less and less interaction with them. In this environment, tolerance is more an idea than a lived experience. Taxes are not money we contribute to help others but a bill to pay.

The rise of echo-chamber culture, reflected by one-sided cable news shows, screechy editorial pages and ugly politics, is another manifestation of this disconnection. It is a form of segregation not based on race but on ideology.

We are angry with each other because we don’t know each other.

The sad/happy news is that these trends will probably deepen in the years ahead. If toxic politics is the price we have to pay for greater freedom, it just might be worth it.

Contributing columnist J. Peder Zane can be reached at

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