A joke making the rounds since January describes social media dialogue thusly: “Twitter is 90% someone imagining a guy, tricking themselves into believing that guy exists and then getting mad about it.”
I don’t know who wrote this tweet or the individual’s qualifications. But for me the message captures something about the ills of drawing caricatures of our political opponents.
Democrats these days are critical race theory loving, woke Marxists determined to scramble all gender distinctions, transform the country by making election fraud easy, drive faith out of the public sphere and silence any voices that challenge their radical agenda through censorship by their allies in big tech and the media.
Republicans are obedient fascists who remain in the thrall of former President Donald Trump and are all too willing to trash democracy to institute minority rule and maintain white supremacy while picking on immigrants and transgender people along the way.
Portions of these characterizations probably feel true to you. But they are inherently dehumanizing, turning an opposing faction into irredeemable cartoon villains. It’s easy to make up a guy we hate, project him on someone else and live comfortably in our moral superiority.
Most of us know people who, at the very least, complicate these narratives. Yet the culture war carries on with the assumption that opposing factions represent existential threats to our side. It’s a sure-fire formula for commentators and politicians to command attention amid myriad distractions. But it also walls us off from the kind of give-and-take between factions that is often necessary to make progress.
If there’s hope to be found, it could be in the shared value that many Republicans and Democrats still place in the idea of civics. Last year, Republican pollster Frank Luntz found that a majority of Americans in both parties rank civics in K-12 education as their top choice for how to “strengthen the American identity.”
Of course, as The Atlantic’s George Packer recently explained, that’s pretty much where the agreement ends. The right opposes anything in K-12 public education that smacks of anti-American activism, while the left demands the elevation of historical interpretations different from America’s heroic founding narratives.
If I get the option, I choose a civics approach that deeply educates Americans of all ages about their rights and duties as citizens, along with cultivating respect for the structures and processes of democracy. Civics should also teach people to hold and test different interpretations and inculcate a mindset that Americans must be doers, because civics has never been a spectator sport.
If we take that approach, the culture war could be the place where civics begins anew, rather than ends. But it requires us to set aside the imaginary archenemy mindset in favor of one that elevates curiosity over certainty. It requires us to ask questions first, be willing to fight our own instincts by considering the most noble interpretations of views we detest, and to look for any threads of connection that might be able to sustain us through even the most wrenching of disagreements.
What makes civics as an ideal different from the culture war is the opportunity it creates for understanding – to move those with whom we disagree closer to us while ideally being moved to new understandings ourselves.
The process of engaging in civics can be messy.
As great as this country is, American civics can also produce unsatisfying outcomes. Even unjust or sacrilegious ones. But winning over enough factions to move forward is also the only feasible way we’ve ever had as a nation to re-form a more perfect union where the common good and individual Americans might thrive in concert.
We can’t abandon that hard road even now, because any path that allows us to give up on half the country leads to nowhere but a dead end.
A version of this article appears in the Summer 2021 issue of The Journal, a publication of the Kansas Leadership Center. To learn more about KLC, visit http://kansasleadershipcenter.org. Order your copy of the magazine at the KLC Store or subscribe to the print edition.
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