In some quarters — like with some down at Seattle City Hall — our extreme political polarization is a badge of honor, not something to worry about or fix.
Can we just get along?
This question is being asked more and more, what with the bitter polarization of the nation. The answer, right now, would appear to be a resounding no.
It’s not because we can’t. We don’t want to.
I had that thought the other day when I was listening to the Seattle City Council. Many council meetings of late involve left-wingers shouting at other left-wingers for not being left-wing enough. But on this day, a new purity test of left-wingedness was revealed.
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The council was debating the juvenile-justice issue. Not everyone agrees whether a new jail should be built. But everyone in the room seemed aligned that incarcerating kids is to be avoided, and that other forms of justice and rehabilitation should be pursued, except maybe in the most extreme violent cases.
One council member, Tim Burgess, tried to highlight this basic agreement by noting that “even some of our Republican friends” have been calling for seismic changes to the incarceration system. Burgess cited an article by the Seattle brothers Mike and John McKay, former U.S. attorneys and, yep, both Republicans, who excoriated their own party’s attorney general, Jeff Sessions, for calling for harsher sentences even on low-level crimes.
Kshama Sawant wasn’t having any of that. She stood up and said Burgess wasn’t speaking for her with this “our Republican friends” stuff. Because, she assured the crowd, she doesn’t have any Republican friends.
Yay, cheered the crowd.
Now it’s hardly surprising that Sawant, a socialist, isn’t having GOPers over for mint juleps. But it’s pretty unusual to my ears for a politician to boast that her tribalism excludes even the possibility of warm feelings toward political opponents, even as humans.
Lately, some groups of liberals have been trying to go the other way, by setting out on political-outreach pilgrimages to “try and understand the other side of the American political divide,” as Crosscut’s Knute Berger described one trip. It was a five-hour drive into Eastern Oregon so Seattle liberals could sit and talk with rangeland conservatives.
The irony here is that Sawant could hop on the No. 11 Metro bus for a 15-minute ride up Madison Street to Broadmoor. The gated community is the city’s only red redoubt. It’s also in Sawant’s district, so conveniently, they’re her constituents! I bet they’d welcome her for a round of golf, or maybe a sort of capitalist-socialist mixer at the Seattle Tennis Club.
Seriously, what was provocative about Sawant’s no-Republican-friends declaration isn’t just that it was petty or offensive. It’s that it was tapping into something.
This week a poll by Politico and Morning Consult showed that the American divide is, if anything, widening. Or rather hardening. The poll found that 45 percent of Americans think President Trump is doing a good or great job, while another 43 percent say he’s such a disaster he already should be impeached. That leaves an astonishingly small sliver — 12 percent — in the middle.
“America Is Racing Toward Peak Polarization,” went one headline, noting that the people are more split and seemingly charged up to fight than the politicians, who are the ones usually blamed for not getting along.
Scientific American recently compiled the psychological research into this “hyperpolarization” phenomenon, and found what’s on the rise is “a visceral, even subconscious” attachment to, or rejection of, party groups or “teams.” The result has been a profound, collective loss of empathy: “Those on the other side no longer just disagree about the issues, they are bad people with dangerous ideas,” the authors conclude.
There aren’t only two teams, either. In Seattle, for example, the Republicans probably rank only fourth in clout or numbers right now, behind the Democrats, Sawant’s Socialist Alternative and the new Peoples Party.
So if you’re Sawant, and your aim is a revolution that topples both major parties, well then it’s probably no time to be going around making friends with them, or worse, compromising.
But as crass as that is, Sawant may in a sense only be channeling the people. The answer to the question “can we get along?” is, sadly, no. Right now, we don’t want to.