24 July 2023
In theory, democracy is not just a moral good, but a practical one as well. Democratic government is often lauded as the most fulsome expression of fundamental human rights to freedom, equality, and self-determination, but also as the most reliable system to implement public policies that will improve conditions of living and facilitate the pursuit of happiness for individual citizens. Autocratic governments can act efficiently, but this efficiency is compromised in that only policy ideas favorable to the interests of the ruling individual or group are ever entertained or enacted. The practical advantage of democratic government is that open, democratic systems are more likely to produce policy proposals from a diverse set of constituencies with competing ideological perspectives, bodies of knowledge, and vested interests. From this diversified menu of options, policies and laws that produce the most benefit for the greatest proportion of the citizenry will ideally win out in a vigorous and earnest democratic decision-making process.
But what if a democracy’s citizens are not responsive to the best ideas? What if, when given full freedom to participate in decisions about law and policy, people fail to support the fairest and most effective proposals, and instead cling tenaciously to their own personal opinions or to positions endorsed by the political faction to which they belong? What if our moral distaste for our political adversaries overwhelms our ability to hear them, leaving demonstrably effective ideas unable to generate the consensual support needed to be enacted in a democratic process? In such a case, the moral value of democratic self-expression could be fully honored, but its practical benefits would be left unrealized, as citizens and the lawmakers they select to represent them resist abandoning cherished beliefs to acknowledge good new ideas when they hear them.
Such is the state of democracy in the U.S. today, and I fear, increasingly around the world. The U.S. has evolved from a politics based on disagreement, to one based on dislike, distrust, disrespect, and often even disgust. Like spouses locked in a toxic marriage, our political leaders have lost sight of what is best for their children/citizens in their zeal for exacting vengeance against one another. The reasons for this evolution are many, but technology and a new media environment serve as fuel for flames of polarization that have simmered for decades, providing both a readily available forum for expressing our mutual vitriol and a safe space from facts that might challenge our belief in our own side’s righteousness. And the costs of political polarization extend beyond the inability to generate collective responses to the many challenges that face us. It exacts a psychological toll on citizens as well, eroding trust in institutions and in each other, turning friends and family members against each other, and leaving people to deal with a disorienting swirl of contradictory facts and figures from political and media sources whose business models depend on fomenting conflict and confusion.
After my participation in the recent Dialogues event on political polarization and mental health, some of the feedback I received was that the discussion was, well, depressing. I get it. We have all been through a lot over the last few years. A deadly global pandemic, a senseless war and nuclear tinderbox raging in Europe, increasingly undeniable evidence of destructive global climate change, and a worldwide immigration crisis have left many of us are feeling tired, anxious, and pessimistic about the future. Hearing about the impotence of our political systems to respond to such challenges certainly doesn’t help.
But we as individuals are not powerless to reshape our politics. It starts by working to reconnect with our fellow citizens across the moral divide, breaking down our moral blinders to see through the cardboard cutout depictions of each other presented in the media. Research shows that political partisans tend to misperceive their opponents, believing them to hold more extreme views on contentious topics than they really do, and correcting these misperceptions reduces political animosity and lessens support for political violence and other anti-democratic action. Other research has found that sharing personal experiences - our unique narratives about why we believe what we believe - fosters mutual respect across political lines and increases the perception that our political adversaries have rational (and therefore rationally debatable) reasons for their beliefs.
For democracy to be effective, we must see each other more clearly, more personally, more humbly. We must open ourselves up to ideas that challenge our preconceptions and prejudices. We must resist the natural desire to separate ourselves from those we disagree with, and reengage with them, get to know them, and earnestly seek points of agreement and rapprochement. This does not mean surrendering one’s values, and it does not mean looking away as bad actors seek to warp the democratic process or instigate conflict and grievance to gain power. That is the hard part. Democratic decision-making with groups of people who do not look like us or share our beliefs and values is not a natural state for humans. Multicultural democracy is an uphill evolutionary battle that must work against our natural tendency to band with others who look and think like us, against those who don’t.
It won’t be easy, but the moral and practical benefits of democracy are well worth the fight.