With the Conventions Over

Posted: September 8, 2012 in Uncategorized
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Well, they’re over. Political conventions these days hold no special surprises; the decisions have already been made. Rather, they are occasions to rally the troops and persuade a watching public why they should place their trust in one party or another, one candidate or another. Ever so often some substance creeps in. But the content of such televised events is most usually light, with oratory and rhetoric heavy.

To make sense of the increasing polarization – and there is – I revisited Jonathan Haidt’s insightful book, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion.

In 2007 Haidt and others sponsored a conference at Princeton that addressed this issue of polarization. Part of the outcome was a clear description of everything in American politics that led to our present dilemma. It resonated as true to form with me.

“We learned that much of the increase in polarization was unavoidable. It was the natural result of the political realignment that took place after President Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act in 1964. The conservative southern states, which had been solidly Democratic since the Civil War (because Lincoln was a Republican) then began to leave the Democratic Party, and by the 1990s the South was solidly Republican. Before this realignment there had been liberals and conservatives in both parties, which made it easy to form bipartisan teams who could work together on legislative projects. But after the realignment, there was no longer any overlap, either in the Senate or in the House of Representatives. Nowadays the most liberal Republican is typically more conservative than the most conservative Democrat. And once the two parties became ideologically pure – a liberal party and a conservative party – there was bound to be a rise in <polarization>.”

This trend has only been reinforced by our present ability to isolate ourselves within cocoons of like-minded individuals – either electronically, according to news channels, or physically, in a Whole Foods culture or a Cracker Barrel one.

Hence, one of Haidt’s key ideas of the book: Moral systems both bind and blind. They stick us together and simultaneously screen out any truth that might be outside our narrow worldview.  In a polarized world, everyone goes blind.

We still need people of conviction, to be sure. Fighting for the good cause is important. But in this time we also need to find ways to heal our democracy. “Blessed are the peacemakers” could be our marching orders. Who is willing to stand in the breach and articulate a the third way, creative solutions and values common to all? It’s not easy. You’ll catch flak for it. But how else can we move away from this stalemate?

Some of my young friends shrug their shoulders and say it’s irreparable, the product of history that can’t be fixed. Maybe they are right. They are some of the same ones who are just creating parallel solutions alongside the old ones. Maybe they have something. Maybe we need to demonstrate a third way rather than be part of the intractable problem. Centrifugal force spins us to the edges. But some will be called to stand in a dynamic center of the revolving turbine. They, along with the Spirit, may be our hope.

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