The following first appeared in Public Square Magazine.
Have you heard? The monsters are on the move.
In your neighborhood, and ours. All around us.
They’re not so easy to spot, though, because they often go out of their way to say the nicest of things. About America. About democracy. About the future – and the past. About black people. About religious people.
But don’t let that fool you—and, for sure, don’t be duped into believing what they actually say. Because deep down—beneath all the pleasantries—lies the shocking truth.
They hate America. And they’re actively, consciously wanting to tear down our democracy. They hate black people. And gay people. And religious people. And the traditional family. And the police everywhere.
Deep down, they want it all to burn.
If you think this sounds paranoid, maybe it’s you who hasn’t been paying careful enough attention. After all, the signs are obvious if you’re watching for them….
This is how some engrossing Stephen King books begin. But this is no novel or Halloween stunt. It’s America’s real-life story continuing to unfold before our eyes right now.
You read about it in the news when commentators talk about this vague thing called “political polarization” spreading across our land. But what does that even mean?
Well, it’s not just about anger, which can sometimes be legitimate (and even righteous). And it’s also not just about disagreement, which can be healthy, even when sharp and intense.
No, what’s most dangerous about this American moment is not that we’re frustrated, or even that we’re disagreeing profoundly. It’s that we’ve stopped believing what other people are saying—reading instead into their words with shocking consistency an intent (and malevolence) right under the surface…if you’re watching close enough.
None of this should be unfamiliar. We’ve all been exposed to it plenty. For instance, haven’t you heard?
- Liberals don’t actually care about America—even though they “say” they do. What they want is for the government to intrude even more into your lives, to silence religious voices, to kill more babies, and to enable lawlessness and entitlement in every flavor. And these are all outcomes that they’re conscious of and trying to pull off.
- And conservatives don’t actually care about other people—even though they “say” they do. What they want is for their own religious values to intrude even further into others’ lives, to silence and disenfranchise minorities, to strip away health care, and to retain power illegitimately (as long as they possibly can). This is also what they’re consciously trying to do as well.
Notice the key difference here: none of these arguments concedes the possibility of the other side pursuing wrong approaches that have inadvertent, unintentional consequences that they nonetheless sincerely believe could do good for the country. No, that’s all too complicated. So much more dramatic to insist they’re aware of any bad consequences you see they’re doing…and would you believe it? The rascals are doing it anyway!
Thus, our President calls the Democratic Vice Presidential candidate a “monster” and the Speaker of the House “crazy.” And critics of the President return in-kind, calling him a “terrorist” and “fascism” the core of the Republican message.
This kind of promiscuous name-calling and intense suspicion has infected both major parties – and virtually all sides of every major disagreement in our country. The negative consequences of constantly questioning intent stand in sharp contrast with the kind of strong, open questioning of arguments which can lead to such good (including an expansion of understanding for all). The reverse is true here—with suspicion multiplying confusion and distortion in every direction.
The tragedy is that formalized space to pursue healthy deliberation across differences is one thing that made America truly unique in the world. That takes trust and respect.
But monsters don’t deserve either of those. Because their core is bad. You’ve got to hit them there—hopefully to expose their heart of darkness.
Thus, conservatives used to claim not merely that former President Obama was making poor decisions and leading the country in the wrong direction, but that he was trying to hurt America. And progressives today claim not simply that President Trump is making poor decisions and leading the country in the wrong direction, but that he is trying to consolidate power for a totalitarian-like future.
Such perceptions are not confined to political leaders alone—with polling in recent years confirming the extent to which Democrats say Republicans are “more dishonest than other Americans” (42%), “more immoral” (35%), and “more unintelligent” (33%).
In the other direction, more than half of Republicans (52%) view Democrats as “more closed-minded than other Americans,” “more immoral” (47%), “lazier” (46%), and “more dishonest” (45%).
What makes these kinds of perceptions so corrosive is the way in which they impact our ability to continue any sort of productive conversation as Americans together—with something else very different filling the void. Thus, when Mike Lee compared President Trump to a hero in the Book of Mormon, Evan McMullin’s response went beyond honest disagreement with the Senator’s position, to insinuating he was actively participating in hurting America knowingly: “Mike knows that Trump is a threat to the republic, but chooses to enable [President Trump] anyway because doing so serves his personal ambitions in Washington.”
And in the other direction, rather than openly questioning the wisdom in over-relying upon COVID-19 testing as a barometer of national well-being, President Trump went beyond that honest disagreement to suggest that people were actively promoting that line of thinking in order to specifically hurt him politically:
And you know now with them, you can’t watch anything else. You turn on… COVID, COVID, COVID, COVID, COVID, COVID, COVID, COVID, COVID, COVID. On November 4th, you’ll hear, “It’s getting better. It’s getting better.” You watch. No, no, they’re doing heavy COVID because they want to scare people.
The list of similar dismissals of positive intent (and insinuations of Something Awful right under the surface) goes for miles in every direction. For instance:
- Climate activists insisting that those who disagree with dire predictions don’t care about the planet’s health (rather than acknowledging honest differences in estimations of the threat of climate change).
- Social justice activists insinuating that religious conservatives don’t care about black people, gay people, and women (rather than acknowledging honest differences in our visions of how to sustain the rights of all human beings).
- And rather than acknowledging honest differences in how we see the latest Supreme Court appointment, Republican leaders have been accused of vile hypocrisy and conscious deception. Senator Mazie Hirono said on NPR recently, “I would be happy if two more Republicans changed their mind and grew a conscience. [By contrast] truth matters to us. Keeping our word matters to us.”
In each case, thoughtful observers have pointed out honest disagreements that really do exist on each issue—including the ones that make people the angriest (see, for instance, Christopher Cunningham’s recent articulation of a perspective on the legitimacy of Amy Coney Barret’s confirmation that has been little acknowledged).
None of this is to deny the existence of real evil in the world (and real good)—nor to suggest that actual policy and legislative decisions don’t affect real lives in measurable ways.
All this is true. It’s when our disagreements about what is good (or not good) so quickly translate into accusations of endemic evil in the opposition…that’s when we’ve entered a whole new world.
And not the good kind of “new world.” The dystopian kind. The Stephen King kind.
The one where we don’t want to see what happens next. Isn’t that where we finds ourselves today in America?
- 70 percent of Americans say there will be permanent damage to this country if the “wrong candidate wins – with 80% of Democrats saying Trump would take the country gradually towards a dictatorship and 90% of Republicans saying Biden would gradually take the country towards socialism.
- 60 percent of Democrats and nearly 60 percent of Republicans over the past four years see the other side as a serious threat to the country, LSU researchers found
- 40 percent of Americans see political opponents as “truly evil,” rather than as neighbors they happen to disagree
- 20 percent of Democrats and 15 percent of Republicans say the country would be better off if large numbers of people on the other side “just died.”
The LSU researchers call this “lethal partisanship” for a reason. Rather than just a violent fantasy people are casually musing about, a remarkable 36 percent of Republicans and 33 percent of Democrats in a recent YouGov survey said it would be at least “a little” justified for their side “to use violence in advancing political goals” – with even more (44 percent of Republicans and 41 percent of Democrats) saying there would be at least “a little” justification for violence if the other party’s nominee wins the election – both of which were measurable increases from the same survey just months earlier.
Twice that number – 75% of Americans – report being concerned about the possibility of violence on and after Election Day, according to a USA Today/Suffolk University Poll – with a historically low 25% feeling “very confident” in a peaceful transfer of power.
This is not another silly horror movie. They are serious dangers – even for those who see beyond the monstrous misperceptions on both sides.
We don’t have to keep doing this, America. We really don’t.
There’s another way forward.
No matter what happens on Election Day, please don’t give up on each other.