J. Peder Zane

Our parties, ourselves: How politics is filling a frightening abyss

Peder Zane

Here’s a New Year’s resolution: Let’s stop blaming politicians and the media for the divisive coarsening of our democracy. These days they are not leaders but pleasers.

They rise and fall through their ability to articulate our dreams, desires and fears; to tell us what we want to hear. We’re the organ grinders, calling the tune for politicians and writers who encourage divisiveness.

Our divide may be deep, but politically minded Americans of all stripes share an attraction to such bilious figures that caricature and demonize folks they disagree with.

In fever dreams, Gov. Pat McCrory is the new George Wallace, and illegal immigrants are the source of all that ails us.

We righteously complain about the vicious rhetoric from the other side – the lack of reason, engagement and hope – while trumpeting the venom spewed by those aligned with our side of the divide.

Instead of shuddering at how their rhetoric denies the basic humanity of our fellow citizens – their depictions of Republicans and Democrats more than echo the racist language of yore – we applaud their insults. The nastier the better in our age when ad hominem attacks have replaced thoughtful discussion. It is much easier to blame everything we don’t like on Fox News or political correctness than to sift through competing claims.

We repost and retweet their hateful diatribes on social media, adding our own poisonous huzzah, becoming what we claim to despise in our opponents: mean and small-minded, lacking empathy or civility.

To those who counter that their hatemonger is a truth teller, I wonder: Do you honestly believe that half our citizens are so morally bankrupt and intellectually impaired that their views can only be ridiculed and dismissed?

I see people of good faith coming to very different conclusions – for a variety of reasons – about complex issues. Unfortunately, I see that many of these same people have lost the capacity to listen to one another and thereby begin to bridge those differences

Our divisions are real and even healthy. A broad spectrum of ideas is the sign of a vibrant democracy. Instead of exploring these differences, we have ceded our national discourse to hotheads who appeal to our worst instincts. In this never-give-an-inch environment – where politics has become an M.C. Escher print – even thoughtful voices are dismissed as each side instinctively searches for and espies bias and hidden agendas.

Frayed connections

American politics has always been rough – we fought a civil war for goodness’ sake. But the unforgiving tone of our era is also informed by very contemporary developments that have frayed our connection to one another.

Chief among these is the “bowling alone” phenomena coined by Harvard professor Robert D. Putnam that describes the collapse of the traditional pillars of community since the 1960s. The decline of bowling leagues and civic organizations such as Elks and Rotary clubs is part of a much larger movement that has also seen many Americans turn away from religion and become much more skeptical of authority, whether it is wielded by governments or corporations.

We are not only wary of institutions but also of each other – social trust has long been on decline in America so that today only a third of us say we trust other people. One reason we don’t understand each other is that we don’t know each other.

This trend is exacerbated by technology, which increasingly allows each of us to lead lives of not-so-splendid isolation. And it is hardened by globalization, whose anonymous and inexorable power is replacing American optimism with rootlessness and fear.

In an uncertain, unmoored world, many are turning to politics to fill this frightening abyss, to provide a sense of identity and belonging. Instead of being one aspect of a rich life, political affiliation is now seen as deeply personal.

It is a signifier of our morality and intelligence, our virtue, our values, our tribe. Especially for the politically engaged, it reflects not only what we think as citizens but also who we are as people.

The firebrands, then, are not so much political commentators but psychological counselors. They are not just delegitimizing others – they are validating us.

It is hard enough to compromise on an issue; it is almost impossible when we see them as the core of who we are.

Contributing columnist J. Peder Zane can be reached at jpederzane@jpederzane.com.