Earlier this month, former Vice President Joe Biden gave a grim speech on the "cost of partition" in America on a sunny, cloudless day on the Civil War battlefield in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. "The country is in a dangerous place," he said. “Our trust in one another is dwindling. Hope seems difficult to grasp. Too many Americans see our public life not as an arena for communicating our differences, but as an occasion for total, relentless partisan war. Instead of treating each other's party as an opposition, we treat them as an enemy. "Biden called for a revival of the" spirit of bipartisanism in this country "and an end to the" era of division. "It is a message Biden has referred to time and again when invoking an overarching purpose for his campaign." We can choose the path of getting angrier, less hopeful and divided, one of shadow and distrust, "he said when accepting his party's nomination for president at the Democratic National Convention." Or we can choose another path and use this opportunity together to heal, to be born again, to unite – a path of hope and light. "
Biden has long valued compassion and respect in politics. In his 2007 memoir, Promises to Keep, he recalls the advice of Mike Mansfield – the leader of the Democratic majority when Biden arrived in the Senate in 1973 at the age of 30 – to always "do the good things in your colleagues." Find . Mansfield's admonition helped Biden develop a relationship with Mississippi Democrat James Eastland, the powerful, longtime chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee and an unrepentant segregationist. Eastland eventually granted Biden a seat on his committee and later offered to come to Delaware to support his re-election campaign. "I'll advertise for you or against you, Joe," Biden recalls of Eastland. "Whichever way you think will help you the most."
The Eastland anecdote is a typical Biden parable, proof of his belief that decency is important in politics. It's essentially the pitch he makes to voters in his presidential campaign. But the American political landscape has changed over the half century of Biden's public life. The deepest racial, ethnic, religious, geographic, and cultural divisions in the country are now imprinted on American party affiliations, fueling the relentless partisan rancor that characterizes our politics today. The ideological polarization in Congress is higher than at any time since the end of the civil war. The election of Donald Trump and the remarkable stability of his approval ratings during his presidency – even if the vast majority of Americans say they are dissatisfied with the country's direction – can also be attributed to this new confluence. If Biden is elected on November 3rd, one of his urgent tasks will be to take steps to rehabilitate the partisan divisions that are threatening American democracy.
Alan Abramowitz, political scientist at Emory University, outlines in The Great Alignment, a compact book from 2018, the changes that have so drastically changed the composition of the country's two-party system. In the past few decades, southern white conservatives like Eastland have gradually been disappearing from the Democratic Party as part of a wider shift of white voters – particularly religious conservatives, those without college degrees, and the elderly – to the Republican Party. Meanwhile, the democratic coalition has become increasingly non-white, secular, educated, urban, and young. The parties have largely defined themselves through their responses to evolving demographic and cultural change: the country's growing racial and ethnic diversity; promoting the rights of women and gays; the development of the traditional family structure. "In general, Americans can be divided into two camps: those who view the changes of the last half century as mostly positive for their lives and American society, and those who see the effects of these changes as mostly negative," Abramowitz writes. "Since the 1960s, Americans in the first group have increasingly come to support the Democrats, while those in the second group have increasingly come to support the Republicans."
Fighting between factions has been going on since the earliest days of the republic, and conflict is an inevitable, even healthy, feature of politics. What is new is the way partisan affiliations are so closely linked to other fundamental aspects of human identity. Political parties have become shorthand for much more than just political preferences. "Partiality can now be viewed as a mega-identity with all of the psychological and behavioral magnifications that go with it," writes Lilliana Mason, professor of government and politics at the University of Maryland, in her book Uncivil Agreement. To make matters worse, both sides are increasingly isolated from one another. "Partisans have less and less in common," writes Mason. "Fewer overarching divisions remain to bind the parties together and facilitate the understanding, communication, and compromise necessary to fuel American voters and, more broadly, the American government." The end result is what political scientists call "negative partisanship". Americans are increasingly voting not because of any kind of devotion to their party, but rather to signal a disgust for the other side. Ezra Klein, in his recent book Why We Are Polarized, explains negative partisanship as follows: “If you've ever voted in an election, you feel a little stupid about the candidate you supported, but you fear him Cave dweller or socialist you are up against, you were a negative partisan. "
Any serious attempt to contain the toxicity of American politics today will require either disrupting the way voters are divided into parties or overcoming the political mega-identities that have emerged. In Breaking the Two-Party Doom Loop, released earlier this year, political scientist Lee Drutman advocates America becoming a multi-party democracy. "A fully divided, two-party system with no overlap is probably impractical in any democracy, given what it means to us," he writes. "It leads us to see our fellow citizens not as political opponents with whom we politely disagree, but as enemies who have to be delegitimized and destroyed." In particular, Drutman argues that for a period that spanned the majority of Biden's Senate career, the country actually had a hidden four-party system made up of the liberal and conservative wings of both Democrats and Republicans. The result was a strikingly productive period of several decades for Congress. Without a radical overhaul, as suggested by Drutman, a more tolerant, inclusive G.O.P., no longer under the influence of religious conservatives, would perhaps be the most effective way to displace the current political and cultural orientation of the parties. After the 2012 election, the Republican National Committee actually released a lengthy post-mortem recommending the party to make serious changes, including contacting black, Hispanic, and gay voters. Recruiting more candidates from minority communities; and greater openness on social issues. But the Trump presidency – and his reshaping of the party in his own image – has dashed any hope of these changes. A resounding election defeat in November could put the G.O.P. Reverse course, but a fundamental change in identity will take time.
There are other ways to de-escalate. In 1954, social psychologist Gordon Allport published the seminal book The Nature of Prejudice, which showed how contact between groups can reduce hostility between groups. Allport believed that this required certain conditions, such as the groups involved, working towards common goals, and that the interactions lead to "sharing common interests and humanity". Recent research has found that not all Allport terms are strictly necessary and that group interactions can alleviate tension. The challenge, of course, is that Democrats and Republicans are increasingly socially isolated from one another. However, a Biden government could take steps to encourage community groups and other social institutions that promote the dismantling of political barriers.
Social psychologists have also explored how an “overarching identity” such as a strong national identity can make it easier for people to accept their differences with others. The Republicans' demand to put "country over party" has repeatedly failed during the Trump presidency. But a Biden presidency could deliberately seek a common agenda and spirit that goes beyond the party. In “This America” my colleague Jill Lepore advocates a “new Americanism” that is “inseparable from an unshakable commitment to one through devotion to equality and freedom, tolerance and research, justice and fairness, and through the commitment to national prosperity sustainable environment around the world. "
Twenty years ago, Harvard political scientist Robert D. Putnam published Bowling Alone, which documented how Americans became increasingly separated from one another. how participation in social and community organizations, from bridge clubs to churches, had declined; and how the norms of reciprocity, honesty and trust in society had steadily declined. Putnam devoted only a small portion of "Bowling Alone" to comity in politics, but in his new book "The Upswing," written with Shaylyn Romney Garrett, he argues that social solidarity increases over the first two-thirds of the time The twentieth century, followed by a sharp decline at the end, largely traces a number of other important trends, including the country's degree of political polarization. Putnam finds many similarities between the United States at the turn of the 20th century and the nation today. "Inequality, political polarization, social upheaval and cultural narcissism prevailed – all accompanied by unprecedented technological advances, wealth and material well-being," he writes. He attributes the progressive movement, which gained momentum in the late 18th century and waned in the 1920s, to transforming the country into a "more egalitarian, cooperative, coherent, and altruistic nation" only to have these positive trends in the mid-1960s Years in reverse. Although this decade was marked by the enactment of civil rights laws and other Great Society initiatives, Putnam describes the 1960s as the pivotal point for the country. Economic mobility stalled, community-family relationships frayed, and American culture turned inward and lost focus on the common good. Referring to this pattern as the "I-we-I" curve, he argues that America rose from an individualistic "I" society to a more communitarian "we" ethos, only to return.
In Putnam's work, Biden could find a roadmap for national restoration that includes collective efforts and the promotion of a collective American identity. "No party, policy, platform, or charismatic leader was responsible for creating the upswing in America as we entered the 20th century," Putnam writes. "Instead, it was countless citizens who got involved in their own spheres of influence and came together to generate a great deal of criticism and change – a real shift from 'I' to 'We'." It may also be wishful thinking. Imagine if Biden or a single person could bring about a movement for the common good. However, if anything was made clear in the Trump era, the presidency provides a megaphone for shaping the broader culture. A narcissistic president drives a narcissistic culture. A move toward "us" in America could begin with a president less focused on "me".