America should debate politics the way successful couples argue
A funny thing happened when I was road-testing the message of my new book, Reclaiming Patriotism, on a group of elected officials in a Washington, D.C. suburb. I suggested that, to counter the polarization that paralyzes the government and tears apart society, we need to apply to our political discussions the model successful couples use to fight.
Studies show, I told the group, that married couples fight about as often as those that break up — but those that stay together fight better. They follow implicit rules of engagement that enable couples to seek changes in their division of labor and budgets while maintaining the union. And these couples benefit from taking into account that they also have some common goods, say, their children.
To ensure that everybody noted that I was merely using the couples as an analogue, I hastened to add the climate as an example of a common good for the nation.
My audience’s heads, it seemed, were elsewhere. While those in attendance were taking a note here and there as I was spelling out my thesis, they labored furiously to take down details about how couples fight fairly. I reported that this kind of vying entails not demonizing the other side, not attributing sinister motives, listening well to what the other states and repeating it back to them, setting time for cooling-off periods, dealing with one issue at a time (not, well, last week you forgot to take out the garbage), and focusing on the future rather than the past.
I had the strong impression that they were thinking more about their spouses or partners than what I wanted them to focus on — how the various groups that make up the nation must learn to argue with each other while maintaining unity.
To make my case, I presented some of the data about the scope of the polarization that is sowing hatred among Americans and preventing the government from functioning. The data also show that Republicans are moving to the right and Democrats to the left. In 2014, Pew found that “92 percent of Republicans are to the right of the median Democrat, and 94% of Democrats are to the left of the median Republican.”
According to a 2019 Pew survey, 85 percent of Americans feel that political debate in the U.S. has become more negative and less respectful in recent years, three out of four Americans (76 percent) believe that political debate has become less fact-based and 60 percent find that it has become less focused on the issues. Four out of five Americans (78 percent) feel that politicians using heated language against select groups raise the probability that there will be violence against those groups.
A 2017 Pew study found that the majority of Americans appreciate “elected officials who make compromises with people with whom they disagree,” while only a minority prefer “politicians who stick to their positions.” Less than 10 percent of people who identify as either a Republican or a Democrat have spouses or partners from the opposing political party. Partisanship plays a larger role in peoples’ choices of spouses than personality or physical appearance. Trump pours gasoline on these fires daily and twice during the weekend.
At issue is which vision we should embrace when we aspire to counter these tendencies. Should we call for ending identity politics and putting unity over the expression of differences? Follow those who stress that we are not red or blue Americans, but Americans? I suggest that this is neither possible nor necessary.
People can live together, in one family, one community, and one nation, and still vie with each other over the ways the national budget is allotted, the way past injustices should be corrected and new ones avoided, how best to protect national security and public health, and all other such matters — as long as they follow the rules of engagement “good” couples follow.
In previous eras, U.S. Senators used to heed such rules. Those days seem long lost now. How far we have to go to relearn how to fight fairly is indicated by the fact that the GOP and the Democrats do not even agree with each other that they will report to the FBI when a foreign power seeks to help them to subvert the other party.
As to the list of common goods, we are likely to differ even about what that list includes, let alone how to advance these goods. But we would do best to agree to start by shoring up the institutions that allow us to resolve differences in a civil way, the foundations of democracy and concern ourselves with the future that waits for no one.
Amitai Etzioni is a professor of international affairs at The George Washington University. For a discussion of how to advance civic nationalism, see his latest book, “Reclaiming Patriotism,” published by the University of Virginia Press. He can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.