Over recent decades America has made great strides in overcoming bigotry and intolerance. Negative stereotyping of blacks, women, gays, and non-Christians was once open, unapologetic, and commonplace; now it is actively scorned and stigmatized. But at the same time we were taking these steps toward a more perfect Union, another form of intolerance has been spreading rapidly and now threatens to tear our Union apart. Let’s call it partisan bigotry.
We’ve been discussing and worrying about it for years now, but under other names. Using the dispassionate language of social science, we talk about polarization and partisanship—especially affective polarization and negative partisanship, meaning the growing divide between left and right that’s driven by antipathy for the other side. But as our political conflicts have spilled over into violence and insurrection, it’s time to be less dispassionate. Polarization isn’t just unfortunate; it’s the product of beliefs that are often wrong and behavior that is blameworthy.
It’s important to note that the problem isn’t remotely symmetrical. Out-of-control partisan zeal on the right is now an existential threat to the continued vitality and even existence of liberal democracy in America. The main danger posed by excesses on the left, by contrast, is that they will drive away otherwise winnable voters into the arms of the anti-democratic right. Even so, that still means that those of us who oppose the threat from the right have good cause to clean up our own acts.
Political polarization is driven by relentless, ubiquitous stereotyping: invidious overgeneralizing that ascribes negative characteristics to all members of an out-group. Republican politicians and conservative media regularly vilify Democrats as radical, anti-American socialists; the metastasizing QAnon movement pulls out all the stops and charges Democrats with involvement in a global conspiracy of Satanic pedophiles. Meanwhile, liberals and progressives routinely portray the Republican electorate as a monolith of racist, sexist, anti-democratic xenophobia.
This incessant trash-talking aimed at our fellow citizens, both in the mass media and in countless face-to-face and online encounters, deepens and inflames our political divisions by grossly exaggerating our actual differences. According to a 2015 YouGov survey, Republicans on average think that 38 percent of all Democrats are gay, lesbian, or bisexual (it’s really 6 percent), while Democrats on average think that 44 percent of Republicans make more than $250,000 a year (it’s really 2 percent). Both sides look across the aisle and see a caricature. No wonder we feel increasingly antagonistic toward the other side.
The case for toleration of political differences mirrors the original case for religious toleration. After the horrific bloodshed of the Wars of Religion, freedom of conscience emerged as the modus vivendi that permitted peaceful coexistence amid irrepressible and incendiary differences. Today our two political parties, sorted along ideological as well as demographic lines, function as “mega-identities” that are the contemporary equivalent of fighting faiths. The overwhelming interest in social peace that carried the day for religious tolerance now militates in favor of partisan tolerance. Judging people based on their actions, not their beliefs, is the norm that in both cases can prevent pluralism from devolving into chaos.
Partisan bigotry also has important similarities to racial and ethnic animus. They are not morally or historically equivalent: Condemning people for immutable characteristics that they are unable to control or alter is unfair and bears a long and terrible historical legacy.
Yet while political orientation is not immutable, it is awfully sticky. Social liberalism and conservatism are both strongly associated with particular personality traits: using the well-established Big Five model of personality, liberalism tracks well with high openness to experience and low conscientiousness, while conservatism is aligned with the opposite. These traits, in turn, have a strong genetic component, as I discussed in a recent essay.
And when we move from basic political orientation to particular beliefs about issues, individual agency is also quite weak. We tend to believe that our own political views are the result of rational reflection. But most people typically don’t work out policy positions on their own and then shop for the political party that best represents their views. Indeed, political science research shows that the opposite is closer to the truth. Voters first pick a side, usually based on which one seems to include and prioritize people like them; then, to the extent they follow politics, they pick up cues from political and media leaders as to the issue stances associated with their team. Most people’s political beliefs are thus not some clue about their fundamental character. Rather, they are superficial and lightly held, more an indication of what’s going on around them than what’s going on inside them.
So if you think it’s wrong to treat people as your inferiors because of their skin color or what God they worship, you also have good reasons to believe that partisan bigotry is wrong. Renouncing such bigotry doesn’t mean an end to vigorous political disagreement or hard-hitting contests for power, and it doesn’t mean we should stop criticizing our leaders when we think they go astray. We just need to remember that our fellow citizens, even those we disagree with vehemently, are our civic and political equals and treat them accordingly. Stop ascribing bad traits to all people on the other side, and stop treating political disagreements as a reason to write off people as incorrigible.
This is a hard message to hear at a time when many on the right have abandoned both objective reality and the bedrock democratic commitment to respect election outcomes. Yet it is precisely because the future of American constitutional democracy is on the line that those of us who believe in that future need to do better. Because the Republican party cannot presently be trusted with power, it falls to Democrats to hold off the threat of authoritarian populism. And that means winning over as many of those 74 million people who voted for Trump last November as possible. You can’t do that by treating the whole lot of them as an undifferentiated mass of deplorables.