It may be hard for the young to believe, but there was a time in the not-too-distant past when America wasn't as divided as it is today. Or, to put it more accurately, when the divisions mattered less.
A time when, though some of us were liberals and some conservatives, some country dwellers and some urbanites, Americans were less quick to demonize those who disagreed with them. When Americans didn't feel threatened by each other.
Many Americans feel threatened today. As Ross Douthat put it in a New York Times column, "In a culture this diverse and divided we trust our fellow citizens less, we share less with them, and we fear that any political defeat will leave our communities at their mercy, that if we lose power we will be routed and destroyed (http://tiny.cc/…)."
The last half of that sentence is the key. What's new is the fear that to lose at the polls is to lose everything. For the other side to win an election is not just disappointing. It's threatening.
Extreme fears of this sort, Douthat writes, undermine democratic life, which "requires accepting that your own faction may be out of power roughly half the time."
Douthat describes himself as "a conservative Catholic who works in a liberal milieu." He worries that a militantly secular society threatens religious liberty. But perhaps because he works with people who don't think as he does, he understands that it isn't just his faction that feels threatened.
Douthat understands, too, that "because we are so distant from our rivals, we cannot recognize that they share the same fears about what will happen if power is in our hands -- or else we dismiss those fears as the pleadings of a wicked claque whose destruction is entirely merited."
So, after the Supreme Court decision legalizing same-sex marriage, Douthat writes, many liberals dismissed as "alarmism" Christian dissidents' fears that "conservative believers would be prodded out of various occupations, while their schools and hospitals and charities would be fined and taxed and regulated and de-accredited to death." And when those attacks did arrive (think the lawsuit against the Colorado baker who refused to make a wedding cake for a gay couple), "they obviously deserved it."
Then, when a Republican president came to power, Douthat continues, "the roles reversed and suddenly it was a certain kind of right-winger who couldn't understand why blacks and Hispanics and Muslims might feel threatened by the new president, why Trump's rhetoric might make them fear for their very safety, why causes conservatives regarded as procedurally neutral exercises in enforcing laws -- illegal-immigrant roundups, strict voter ID laws -- were experienced as white-identitarian aggression."
As Douthat observes, "This kind of cycle of incomprehension and aggression tends to destroy republics if it isn't broken, if leaders can't compromise ideological principles to maintain civic peace, if partisans can't imagine how the world looks in communities vastly different from their own."
It would help, Douthat thinks, to have a president who reassured those feeling threatened" in a way that Obama failed to do and Trump is incapable of even attempting." Douthat wants Anthony Kennedy, the swing justice on the Supreme Court, to assume the role. It was Justice Kennedy's vote that decided the same-sex marriage case, and Douthat hopes he will balance that vote with a decisive vote in favor of the baker in the wedding-cake case.
"Liberalism won the same-sex marriage battle. Religious conservatism isn't going away. We all have to find a way to live together," Douthat concludes. "That goal requires some compromise and magnanimity. Here is an opportunity: Please, for the sake of the country, leave the baker alone."
Personally, I find the baker's case more complicated than Douthat does. I can illustrate that by comparing it to two more clear-cut cases. Case One: I would hope for a Supreme Court victory for a minister being sued because he refused to marry a gay couple on religious grounds. In this hypothetical, the intrusion on religious liberty is so great as to justify an exception to antidiscrimination law.
In Case Two, though, I'd hope the Supreme Court would reject the appeal of a restaurant owner who had been found to be illegally discriminating when he refused to serve dinner to a married gay couple because he disapproved of their union on religious grounds.
To me, the baker of a wedding cake lies somewhere in between the minister and restauranteur. If the Supreme Court rules for the baker, I hope it does so in a sharply limited way that avoids creating loopholes in the laws against discrimination.
Still, as someone who cares about the urban-rural divide as well as the other deep divisions in this tragically divided country, I find much to admire in Douthat's column. His analysis of how divisions lead to distrust and distrust to a win-at-all-cost politics is thought-provoking. It applies not just to social issues like the balance between religious liberty and antidiscrimination but also to the economic and foreign policy issues that divide us as a country, from genetic engineering to free trade.
Douthat's conclusion contains two thoughts with which I could not agree more. We all have to learn to live together, and that requires magnanimity and compromise. Let's hope everyone -- urban and rural, liberal and conservative -- takes these thoughts to heart in 2018. "We will find a way to live together and practice magnanimity and compromise" would be a worthy New Year's resolution for a divided nation.
Urban Lehner can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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