An Unconventional Answer to Our Tribalism: More Speech Chambers
By Khoury Johnson
Americans today are divided not because of politics, but because of a lack of social cohesion, according to Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.). His October op-ed in The Wall Street Journal, “Politics Can’t Save Our Problems,” drew the following conclusion: The halcyon days our parents and grandparents cherished, when partisanship bowed to civic duty, and when communities consisted of people in shared physical spaces rather than anonymous profiles in virtual chat rooms, survive only in fading memories.
Increasingly, he writes, we are becoming a nation of tribes — political in nature, disparate in composition. The lonely among us grow daily in number, and their lines are drawn in ever more partisan sands. At the root of this problem lies the absence of a foundation, for, when everyone becomes too preoccupied with what everyone else is doing (via social media and other distractions), few remain to cultivate the pillars of community — social groups, churches, civic associations, youth programs, and the like.
The solution, Sasse says, is to resist the urge to silo and to strive instead toward community-building across socioeconomic lines. “Mutual affection and understanding,” in his view, must serve as the antidotes to our present social ailments.
This, I think, is a laudable idea. Affection and understanding are the result of familiarity, which, if brought about through interpersonal interaction and achieved in great enough proportion, can erase the type of fear and distrust that causes social institutions to crumble.
But how likely is it that a populace already divided will lay down their arms, so to speak, and reengage willfully and earnestly with neighbors they had come to see primarily through party-colored lenses?
“If too many Americans feel like we’re not ‘in this together’ right now, it’s because we’re not. We are screaming at each other, and the country no longer has enough real social texture to absorb and wick away the hatred,” according to Sasse, who presents himself as an independent-minded Republican, although he seems to vote a straight Trumpian line.
As someone whose job it is to monitor cases of Free Speech infringement across the country for the Free Speech Project at Georgetown University, I see stories every day in which one group “screams” at, as opposed to talking with, their respective colleagues and counterparts. To cite a few:
A university in Wisconsin announces with officious clarity its objection to a student passing out Valentine’s Day cards imprinted with Bible verses; it decries her actions not only for being offensive, but also for taking place outside one of the campus’s “public assembly areas.”
A police department in Oregon says, unintentionally but unmistakably, that truth plays second fiddle to image when it fires a community liaison, 13 years into her tenure, for answering honestly a question about racial profiling by law enforcement in the community.
A high school in Utah speaks volumes when it temporarily shuts down and takes control of the website for the school’s student-run newspaper. The crime: Two editors had published a story that portrayed an esteemed faculty member in an inglorious light, prompting school administrators to save face lest a media storm disrupt day-to-day operations.
These and other cases highlight the lengths some will go to eradicate voices or perspectives that threaten their status quo. In certain instances, agreements are hashed out or rulings revisited, but in others, actions are taken before cooler heads have a chance to prevail. And this, more than anything, causes me to doubt the prospects for community-building — or should I say rebuilding — in today’s America.
A large share of the incidents we at the Free Speech Project have documented so far took place at schools, where people from different walks of life have presumably become familiar with one another. Even within these constructed communities, one of the few remaining spaces where people have regular, face-to-face interaction, Free Speech is the first victim of division. If we cannot, even in shared spaces, cultivate a community of varied but exchanged ideas, then how likely are we to create communities once the bubble of college is forever escaped?
I do not mean to discredit those who would contend that some voices, even at the expense of Free Speech, are better off silenced due to the values or concepts they promote.
But if we are to attempt to engage in honest, productive discourse, a crucial step toward doing so would be to overhaul the current political system. Counterintuitive as it may sound, expanding beyond two main political parties could lay the foundation for further social cohesion, even in largely indirect ways.
For starters, parties representing different groups of the same general political leaning, say one for self-styled progressives and one for traditional liberals, could stave off apathy and encourage political participation, since people might be more inclined to vote for a party that aligns with their specific core values.
Although, upon first glance, this would seem only to subdivide people further (i.e. extremist voices on both sides would, presumably, get equal representation), increased political buy-in would offset most, if not all, negative effects.
Of course, some would cite present party factions as evidence that coalitions already exist in U.S. politics, with primary elections being the channel through which voters drive their makeup. Others would argue that, the world over, few examples of functioning, thriving multiparty states can be found. But actually, many West European nations, including France, Germany, and Scandinavian states, not to mention Israel, have such systems. In those countries, various parties must form ruling coalitions in order to craft majority control (while the losing parties, after coalescing into their own minority bloc, still retain some say in policymaking).
Without the interest-pooling effect of broad, organized, encompassing political coalitions, achieving consensus would be close to impossible, and governing would suffer as a result. Our ancestors got a taste of this in 1860, when Republicans, Northern Democrats, Southern Democrats, and Constitutional Unionists all vied for the U.S. presidency. After Abraham Lincoln emerged victorious with only 40% of the vote, the country sank into a civil war over slavery.
Some would also counter with a point deftly articulated in a March 2018 Vox article, “Why America’s 2-party system is on a collision course with our constitutional democracy” by Lee Drutman, a government professor at Johns Hopkins University. In a system with more, specialized parties, one would be inviting greater input from those with outrageous and anti-establishment, even anti-democratic, sentiments. Any increase in participation in elections could also come from worrisome elements.
Furthermore, doing so could, of course, increase partisanship at large: “After all, the more politically engaged people become, the more they become strong partisans. This makes sense, since if you’re going to become involved in politics, you must think it matters who’s in charge,” Drutman writes. In an era when the sitting president actively seeks to carve ideological fissures among swaths of the electorate, threatening our unity and the country’s constitutional integrity, the last thing we need is hyperpartisanship, even if it comes through the achieved goal of increased political participation.
But while having more political parties may be messy, the negatives could actually be positives in the long run. For example, should parties proliferate and participation expand, more people would become educated not only on the issues, but in civics overall. Partisanship, at first, would inevitably prosper, but the human mind is far from static. Over time, the more informed, more educated public will be better able to identify shared interests, and consensus-building will create codified coalitions.
With consensus comes trust. And it was trust in institutions — government, media, and religion — that buoyed the 20th-century glory days Sasse hearkens back to.
To achieve such constructive fervor in today’s climate, we must recognize that, due to technological and societal changes, U.S. civic life will probably never again resemble what it was in that era. Social media and the internet, the 24-hour news cycle, a nation constantly under surveillance and at war, and new definitions of civil rights and patriotism: All of those things are here to stay. They, and several other social, economic, and political factors, are causes or symptoms of current societal divisions.
But instead of trying to reverse these powerful forces, Americans’ efforts would be better directed toward taking ownership of our politics, the one institution run by the people, of the people, and for the people. Once this is attained, and our Americanism is defined by our ability to believe and speak freely rather than by our loyalty to parties and values established well before most of our times, then other, nonpolitical bonds may take root and have a chance to flourish.
Of course, “overhauling the current political system” is easier said than done, and there will be countless hurdles to overcome. But, as existential threats to our democracy mount, what better time to revisit the tenets of our Constitution and rewrite the framework of our political future? This would not mean eliminating parties or communities altogether. As Sasse says, we, as humans, “want and need to be in tribes.”
Our politics would be more equitable if tribes were given better, as well as greater, representation. Perhaps then the screaming matches Sasse referred to will turn into civil discourse, and Free Speech will serve once again as the arena through which our communities battle for the common good.
Khoury Johnson is project manager and editor of the Free Speech Project. Before joining the Project, he worked as a writer for the Urban Institute. A graduate of Georgetown’s Asian studies graduate program, he earned his bachelor’s in political science with a minor in Chinese from Temple University.