The defining political moments of the last 12 months came not from the lackluster presidential campaign, but from months of explosive violence. Riots and looting associated with Black Lives Matter protests engulfed 140 cities and triggered between $1 billion to $2 billion of insurance claims, becoming the most expensive civil disturbances in U.S. history. The untreated wound in our body politic soon bled into 2021, as a cadre of pro-Trump extremists broke into the poorly defended U.S. Capitol building in a protest over election fraud. While the New York Times reported the “[d]amage to the interior of the building was largely limited to broken glass, busted doors and graffiti,” the psychological impact of assaulting a national symbol of governance strikes deep.
As businesses flee decimated inner cities and a razor wire-topped fence shuts U.S. citizens out of their own government, both inexcusable eruptions threaten to deform our nation for decades to come. We now long for recent days past when Arthur Brooks could say, “We don’t have an anger problem in American politics. We have a contempt problem.” America now undeniably has a political violence problem.
In some ways, these latest outbursts are the natural progression of a substance-free presidential race which saw its first debate devolve into name-calling, and which itself followed years of political pettiness at every level of society. However, dangerously high levels of partisan animosity predate this election, or the last presidency.
The Founding Fathers charged public officials with calming, rather than inflaming, passions – alas, hardly the only aspect of original intent that politicians have ignored. As James Madison wrote in Federalist No. 10, elected representatives in a republic have the duty “to refine and enlarge the public views, by passing them through the medium of a chosen body of citizens, whose wisdom may best discern the true interest of their country, and whose patriotism and love of justice will be least likely to sacrifice it to temporary or partial considerations.” Instead, politicians stoke anger for political gain.
To paraphrase the former president, Washington isn’t sending its best – and their example has successfully filtered down to the grassroots level. Simmering political rhetoric divides the entire nation. This author has warned in these pages of such polarization (see “Repairing the breach: bringing peace to politically fractured families and communities” in the Fall 2020 issue), particularly highlighting the research of Shanto Iyengar and Sean Westwood, who found that prejudice against members of another political party long ago surpassed the intensity of racism. Conditions worsen daily, as traditional and social media center their business models around spoon-feeding viewers their regular dose of outrage porn.
In this environment, what could undo the damage?
Business unites. “The great virtue of a free market system is that it does not care what color people are; it does not care what their religion is; it only cares whether they can produce something you want to buy,” wrote Milton Friedman. “It is the most effective system we have discovered to enable people who hate one another to deal with one another and help one another.” Unfortunately, if politicians get their way, Americans will have fewer opportunities to engage in commerce with people of differing viewpoints. Some in Congress have pressured banks to stop offering rudimentary services to disfavored industries like gun manufacturers, reviving the strategy behind the Obama-era’s Operation Choke Point. They have also raised the possibility of employers instituting a political blacklist in hiring decisions – although, if elite institutions truly believe Americans are an insurrectionary force, the last thing they should want is for this group to find itself unemployable, aggrieved, and awash in free time.
The last great surge of national unity came after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. At this point, even a sudden, foreign terrorist onslaught seems incapable of patching the chasm between Americans. That unity proved short-lived, and some Americans at the time described the assault as America’s chickens coming home to roost, or called for jihadists to perpetrate “a million Mogadishus” against U.S. soldiers. After two decades of ingrained critical theory, could an act of catastrophic barbarism unite the country, even as Americans fervently perpetrate acts of violence against one another?
Too much relies on our solving our national disintegration to ignore the problem. “We can – we must – choose to bridge divides peacefully and empathetically so the American experiment can continue,” wrote Kurt Gray, the director of the Center for the Science of Moral Understanding at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill. The pure of heart say the answer is simple: Americans must love each other. While ultimately the theological virtue of charity is the answer, their exhortation has a tantalizing lack of specificity. What is necessary is for us to put that into practice in a targeted way.
The good news is there’s a path out of our vicious circle of violence that is less destructive than war and more concrete than vague and amorphous calls for positive feelings. What works? According to researchers, the solution is solutions – specifically, focusing on solving national problems together.
In North Carolina, Gray leads an alliance of social scientists administering what is known as the “Decision Point Method”: They pose real-life decision-making scenarios to people across the political spectrum. For instance: A crisis has had a disparate impact on the states; how much authority would you defer to local authorities? Or another scenario: Suppose a state passed a law you disagree with; would you strike it down? If so, how would you avoid preempting every other state decision? “Psychological research shows that thinking through issues and problems creates bonds between people, whereas visceral and emotional debates create enemies,” wrote Manu Meel, the CEO of BridgeUSA, a partner in Decision Point’s research.
Some 300 miles north, the Well-Being Laboratory at George Mason University is studying “how to enhance civility and reduce animosity in a politically polarized world,” with a $1.09 million grant from the Charles Koch Foundation. “We are fine-tuning strategies to become intellectually humble and sufficiently curious to consider ideas that emerge from members of other groups,” said team leader Todd Kashdan, a psychology professor. They emphasize civil, personal debates that reveal most Americans want the same things.
The first step to overcoming our outrage addiction is not acknowledging that you have a problem; it’s seeking a solution. Research shows the answer to a fractious nation is federalism, subsidiarity, and concrete problem-solving. Politicians will continue to stir the pot until we deny them, and ourselves, the sugar high of self-righteousness.
This means that we must recognize the common humanity and decency of others. We must free ourselves from the shackles of ideological mania. We can accomplish this task only with great care and deliberation, as it upends the status quo of our dominant political, media, and culture-making institutions.
The Acton Institute has never been, nor will it ever be, a political organization. Our mission is too precious to entrust to politicians. Acton recognizes that our problems, and their solutions, originate mostly outside politics. We remain committed to our principles regardless of who holds office, praying for the well-being of all civil authorities, certain in the knowledge that obstructing our goal of creating a free and virtuous society remains the most successful bipartisan policy in history.
The disappointing results produced by members of both parties reinforce our need to rise up and fulfill our responsibilities, one citizen at a time. Seeking solutions together proves that we wish the best for all people, not merely our sliver of society. Engaging in thoughtful dialogue shows that we care for one another during the deliberation process. And that opens the door to the greatest need we have: that naïve injunction for us to truly love one another.
“Only love and goodness save both people and the whole world,” said one of the greatest spiritual teachers of modern times, Elder Thaddeus of Vitovnica. “Nothing is ever obtained through violence. Force merely provokes rejection and hatred.” Honest parties know too well that heartfelt love for our enemies does not come easily; it is a supernatural gift. Repairing the breach we have allowed to develop between ourselves and others requires greater faith in – and by – humanity. Healing our national contusions demands that we seek mutual recourse to the Great Physician.