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A Pathway to Ending Hyper-Polarization: Structural Reforms Won’t do it Alone

We can all agree that Washington is broken. Gridlock ensues as the divide between the Republicans and Democrats reaches Grand Canyon size proportions. Watching the Republicans put party over country in their defense of Donald Trump during the impeachment trial showed how hyper-partisanship is withering of our democracy, even raising questions of whether our constitutional system can survive. I'm sure our Founding Fathers are turning over in their graves.  

Politics, and by extension, polarization, is no longer about issues or policy; it has devolved into a battleground for morality and identity.

A new book, coming out March 1, Developmental Politics, How America Can Grow into a Better Version of Itself, by Steve McIntosh, president of the think tank, the Institute of Cultural Evolution, offers both practical and philosophical cures for this current state of affairs. To overcome the extreme discord, he argues, America has to evolve its culture.

McIntosh analyzes how America’s three differing worldviews—the mainstream modernist, the socially conservative traditionalist, and progressive postmodernist—are driving this cultural divide. He illustrates how the evolution of values within these three worldviews has shaped the political landscape we are living in today. McIntosh reasons that rather than try to convert the existing values of one worldview to fit into another, or worse, to shun one worldview altogether, we need to expand the scope of what people can value within each worldview. In other words, to find the good in each and expand that to find compromise.

For example, while Trump, the cultural bodyguard of the traditionalist, embodies the enemy of postmodernism, it would be a more fruitful strategy for the postmodernist progressives to elevate some of those traditional values rather than getting into a fight with them.

Complicated, I agree. Even more so given the circumstances surrounding the acquittal of Donald Trump in a trial with no witnesses. Or the recent firing of Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, who was escorted off the White House grounds as retribution for following a lawful subpoena to testify in the Trump impeach trail. Or Attorney General William Barr acting like Trump’s personal lawyer. Or Nancy Pelosi tearing up Trump's State of the Union speech in reaction to, well, everything. Countless other dustups have all contributed to this stalemate between Democrats and Republicans, leaving little ceiling to elevate.

In better times, this divide was driven mostly by political differences. Today it's about identity.

Socio-demographic changes have altered the landscape. We are seeing extreme nativism take hold because of the de-whitening of America, resulting in an anti-immigration backlash, travel bans on Muslims, white supremacists holding marches, and the reappearance of anti-Semitism. In 2016 only 50% of children between 0–5 years old were white compared to 58 % in 2003, according to Ipsos polling. Refugees have become the whipping post, and Trump's hardline approach has only worsened the culture wars around this issue, deepening tribalization.  

Another key driver in this shifting landscape is the belief that the system is broken. Three-quarters of Americans think the economy is rigged, and two-thirds say society is dysfunctional. This has led to a lack of trust in the federal government. A recent Pew Research poll indicated that for 3/4 of Americans, trust in the federal government has been shrinking, and 64% believe that the repercussions in this declining trust in government make it harder to solve many of the country's problems. Finally, extreme citizen polarization and ideological tribalism have contributed to the political polarization.

McIntosh believes, "When we approach political oppositions at the deeper level of bedrock values, the potential for compromise and reconciliation is greatly increased."

He calls this "values integration." He cites gay marriage as an example of an issue that has succeeded by embodying values from both the left and the right: caring values, fairness values, the value of liberty, and traditional family values as well. The legalization of marijuana in 33 states; thus far, is another issue he points to that has succeeded by integrating progressive values with traditional values, such as subsidiarity. Advocates of climate change have failed to capture the values of the right; hence progress has been slow. Depolarizing our thinking, particularly among our leaders and elected officials, can put the country on a roadway towards ending hyperpolarization, which in turn, can restore trust and relax those tribal barriers that keep us apart.

In the second half of the book, McIntosh lays out with academic precision the evolution of the good, the source of motivation in politics, and reviews strategies for cultivating cultural evolution to grow out of this debilitating political impasse. He makes the case that we need to build agreement around a new vision of American's highest purpose – "an expanded and inclusive American Dream that can accommodate the challenges of postmodernism while continuing to inspire modernists and traditionalists."

He writes: “We can evolve American culture by improving each worldview on its own terms, and thereby increase inclusivity while still upholding the fundamental tenant of developmental politics that ‘people have a right to be who they are.’”  

While it is crucial that we fix the structural failings of the American political system with reforms like rank-choice voting, ending gerrymandering, campaign finance reform, congressional reform, eliminating the electoral college, to name a few, ending the culture wars with a value's based approach, as McIntosh suggests, could have a significant impact on how we govern going forward. That's if we can get Donald Trump out of the White House. I don't think the country can take four more years of the White House being run like a free-for-all in a middle school cafeteria where the bullies are in charge with no adult in sight.

Image Source: The Washington Post

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