With congressional Republicans and Democrats arguing over whether the president should be impeached, ever-deepening political and cultural acrimony has turned us into the Divided States of America.
Jumping off from The Atlantic’s December issue, “How to Stop a Civil War,” editor in chief and author Jeffrey Goldberg spoke with contributors Danielle Allen, James Bryant Conant University Professor at Harvard, and Adam Serwer, staff writer at The Atlantic, about the prospects for reconciling our differences and restoring faith in democracy at a JFK Jr. Forum on Tuesday evening.
Allen, a political theorist who runs the Democratic Knowledge Project, said “fragmentation” is the biggest danger to American democracy today. Voters are becoming more geographically, culturally, and socially disconnected, retreating further into ideological and informational silos. Similarly self-governing structures like the U.S. Congress, which rely on cooperation and consensus, find themselves able to agree on very little, she said. The inability to get anything done erodes the faith of voters in democratic institutions, creating an environment demagogues can exploit. Healthy, well-functioning democracies require that individuals sometimes set aside specific preferences for the sake of the greater good, so if we are to be ‘a more perfect union,’ the country needs to prioritize ‘union,’ Allen argued.
Serwer writes frequently about race and is best known for his critique of the Trump administration’s immigration policies, concluding “the cruelty is the point.” He attributes the nation’s current climate of incivility, particularly in political discourse, as one that stems ultimately from still-unresolved issues over race.
“This question of reconciliation should not be prized over the survival of liberal democracy itself the way it was more than 100 years ago” during the Civil War, said Serwer, a fellow at the Shorenstein Center for Media, Politics, and Public Policy last spring. “How we end polarization, the terms on which it ends, are far more important than the fact that it ends.”