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Could Joe Biden Actually Bring America Back Together?

Earlier this month, on a sunny, cloudless day at the Civil War battlefield in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, former Vice-President Joe Biden delivered a sombre speech about “the cost of division” in America. “The country is in a dangerous place,” he said. “Our trust in each other is ebbing. Hope seems elusive. Too many Americans see our…

Earlier this month, on a sunny, cloudless day at the Civil War battlefield in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, former Vice-President Joe Biden delivered a sombre speech about “the cost of division” in America. “The country is in a dangerous place,” he said. “Our trust in each other is ebbing. Hope seems elusive. Too many Americans see our public life not as an arena for mediation of our difference but, rather, they see it as an occasion for total, unrelenting partisan warfare. Instead of treating each other’s party as the opposition, we treat them as the enemy.” Biden called for a revival of the “spirit of bipartisanship in this country” and an end to “this era of division.” It is a message that Biden has turned to time and again when summoning an overarching purpose for his campaign. “We can choose the path of becoming angrier, less hopeful, and more divided, a path of shadow and suspicion,” he said, when he accepted his party’s nomination for President, at the Democratic National Convention. “Or we can choose a different path and, together, take this chance to heal, to be reborn, to unite—a path of hope and light.”

Biden has long valorized comity and respect in the political arena. In his memoir “Promises to Keep,” from 2007, he recalls the counsel of Mike Mansfield—the Democratic Majority Leader when Biden arrived in the Senate, in 1973, at the age of thirty—to always “find the good things in your colleagues.” Mansfield’s admonition helped Biden forge a relationship with the Mississippi Democrat James Eastland, the powerful, longtime chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee and an unrepentant segregationist. Eastland eventually awarded Biden a seat on his committee and later offered to come to Delaware to aid his reëlection campaign. “I’ll campaign for ya or against ya, Joe,” Biden recalls Eastland saying. “Whichever way you think helps you the most.”

The Eastland anecdote is a typical Biden parable, a testament to his belief that decency matters in politics. It is, essentially, the pitch that he is making to voters in his Presidential campaign. But the American political landscape has been transformed in the course of Biden’s half century in public life. The country’s deepest racial, ethnic, religious, geographic, and cultural cleavages are now imprinted onto Americans’ Party affiliations, driving the unrelenting partisan rancor that characterizes our politics today. Ideological polarization in Congress is higher than at any point since the end of the Civil War. The election of Donald Trump and the remarkable stability of his approval ratings throughout his Presidency—even as the vast majority of Americans say that they are dissatisfied with the direction of the country—can also be traced to this new confluence. If Biden is elected on November 3rd, one of his pressing tasks will be to take steps to rehabilitate the partisan divisions that imperil American democracy.

In “The Great Alignment,” a compact book published in 2018, Alan Abramowitz, a political scientist at Emory University, sketches the changes that have so drastically altered the makeup of the country’s two-party system. Over the past several decades, Southern white conservatives like Eastland gradually disappeared from the Democratic Party, as part of a broader shift of white voters—particularly religious conservatives, people without college degrees, and older people—to the Republican Party. Meanwhile, the Democratic coalition became increasingly nonwhite, secular, educated, urban, and young. The Parties have become defined largely by their responses to unfolding demographic and cultural changes: the country’s growing racial and ethnic diversity; the advancement of women’s rights and gay rights; the evolution of the traditional family structure. “In general, Americans can be sorted into two camps: those who view the past half-century’s changes as having mainly positive effects on their lives and on American society, and those who view the effects of these changes as mainly negative,” Abramowitz writes. “Since the 1960s, Americans in the first group have increasingly come to support the Democrats, while those in the second group have increasingly come to support the Republicans.”

Fighting between factions has existed since the earliest days of the Republic, and conflict is an inevitable, even healthy, feature of politics. What is new is the way that partisan affiliations are so enmeshed with other fundamental aspects of people’s identities. Political parties have become shorthand for far more than just policy preferences. “Partisanship can now be thought of as a mega-identity, with all the psychological and behavioral magnifications that implies,” Lilliana Mason, a professor of government and politics at the University of Maryland, writes in her book, “Uncivil Agreement.” Making matters worse, the two sides have become increasingly isolated from each other. “Partisans have less and less in common,” Mason writes. “Fewer cross-cutting cleavages remain to link the parties together and allow the understanding, communication, and compromise necessary to fuel the American electorate, and, by extension, the American government.” The end result is a phenomenon that political scientists call “negative partisanship.” Americans increasingly are voting based not on any sort of devotion to their party as much as to signal a loathing for the other side. Ezra Klein, in his recent book “Why We’re Polarized,” explains negative partisanship this way: “If you’ve ever voted in an election feeling a bit bleh about the candidate you backed, but fearful of the troglodyte or socialist running against her, you’ve been a negative partisan.”

Any serious attempt to curb the toxicity of American politics today requires either disrupting the ways that voters are sorted into parties or somehow transcending the political mega-identities that have emerged. In “Breaking the Two-Party Doom Loop,” published earlier this year, the political scientist Lee Drutman makes the case for America to become a multiparty democracy. “A fully divided two-party system without any overlap is probably unworkable in any democracy, given what it does to our minds,” he writes. “It leads us to see our fellow citizens not as political opponents to politely disagree with but as enemies to delegitimize and destroy.” Notably, Drutman argues that, for a period that encompassed the bulk of Biden’s Senate career, the country actually had a hidden four-party system, made up of the liberal and conservative wings of both the Democrats and the Republicans. The result was a strikingly productive several-decade span for Congress. Short of a radical overhaul, such as what Drutman proposes, a more tolerant, inclusive G.O.P., no longer under the sway of religious conservatives, would perhaps be the most powerful way to dislodge the current party alignment around social and cultural issues. In the aftermath of the 2012 election, the Republican National Committee actually released a lengthy postmortem that recommended serious changes to the Party, including outreach to Black, Hispanic, and gay voters; recruiting more candidates from minority communities; and greater openness on social issues. But the Trump Presidency––and his makeover of the Party in his own image––scuttled any hope of those changes coming to pass. A resounding electoral defeat in November could impel the G.O.P. to reverse course, but a fundamental shift in its identity will take time.

There are other possibilities for deëscalation. In 1954, Gordon Allport, a social psychologist, published a landmark book, “The Nature of Prejudice,” that demonstrated how hostility between groups could be reduced by contact between them. Allport believed certain conditions were necessary for this to occur, such as the groups involved working toward common goals, and that the interactions lead to “the perception of common interests and common humanity.” More recent research has found that not all of Allport’s conditions are strictly necessary, and that any interactions between groups can ameliorate tensions. The challenge, of course, is that Democrats and Republicans increasingly are socially isolated from each other. But a Biden Administration might take steps to spur community groups and other social institutions that encourage the breaking down of political barriers.

Social psychologists have also studied the ways in which a “superordinate identity,” such as a strong national identity, can make it easier for people to accept their differences with others. Calls for Republicans to put “country over Party” have failed time and again during the Trump Presidency. But a Biden Presidency could consciously aspire to a common agenda and spirit that transcends party. In “This America,” my colleague Jill Lepore makes the case for a “new Americanism,” bound together “by a devotion to equality and liberty, tolerance and inquiry, justice and fairness, along with a commitment to a national prosperity inseparable from an unwavering dedication to a sustainable environment the world over.”

Twenty years ago, Robert D. Putnam, a Harvard political scientist, published “Bowling Alone,” which documented how Americans had become increasingly disconnected from one another; how participation in social and community organizations, from bridge clubs to churches, had plummeted; and how norms of reciprocity, honesty, and trust had steadily declined across society. Putnam devoted only a small portion of “Bowling Alone” to comity in politics, but in his new book, “The Upswing,” written with Shaylyn Romney Garrett, he argues that increasing levels of social solidarity in the course of the first two-thirds of the twentieth century, followed by a sharp decline at the end of it, largely track with a number of other important trends, including the country’s degree of political polarization. Putnam finds many similarities between the United States at the turn of the twentieth century and the nation today. “Inequality, political polarization, social dislocation, and cultural narcissism prevailed––all accompanied as they are now, by unprecedented technological advances, prosperity, and material well-being,” he writes. He credits the Progressive movement—which began to gain momentum in the late eighteen-hundreds and waned in the nineteen-twenties—with transforming the country into a “more egalitarian, cooperative, cohesive, and altruistic nation,” only to have those positive trends reversed in the mid-nineteen sixties. Although that decade was marked by the passage of watershed civil-rights legislation and other Great Society initiatives, Putnam describes the sixties as a pivot point for the country. Economic mobility stalled, community and family ties frayed, and American culture turned inward, losing focus on the common good. He labels this pattern the “I-we-I” curve, arguing that America clambered from an individualistic “I” society to a more communitarian “We” ethos, only to revert back.

In Putnam’s work, Biden might find a road map for national restoration, one that involves collective effort and a fostering of a collective American identity. “No one party, no one policy or platform, and no one charismatic leader was responsible for bringing about America’s upswing as we entered the twentieth century,” Putnam writes. “It was, instead, countless citizens engaging in their own spheres of influence and coming together to create a vast ferment of criticism and change––a genuine shift from ‘I’ to ‘we.’ ” Similarly, it is probably wishful thinking to imagine that Biden, or any single individual, could engender a movement for the common good. But, if anything has been made plain by the Trump era, it is that the Presidency offers a megaphone to shape the broader culture. A narcissistic President drives a narcissistic culture. A movement toward “We” in America could start with a President less focussed on “I.”


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