Shortly after Trump was diagnosed with COVID-19, Twitter issued a reminder: “tweets that wish or hope for death, serious bodily harm or fatal disease against anyone are not allowed and will need to be removed.” They referenced rules that prohibit “behavior that harasses or intimidates, or is otherwise intended to shame or degrade others.” Other social media platforms issued similar statements in response to the cascade of glee at the possible death of the president. Even the Washington Post removed an allegedly insensitive tweet imagining a world where we never had to think about President Trump again.
This online vitriol was discomforting but not entirely unexpected. As America navigates the turbulent aftermath of one of the most divisive elections in modern history, a growing cacophony of outrage has consumed the left. Trump’s bungled COVID-19 response, his deployment of federal agents to Portland in the wake of the race-related uprisings of the summer and his assault on mail-in ballots have whipped my fellow progressives into a frenzy. A Trump victory would have imperiled democracy, given rise to authoritarianism, even spelt democratic death, according to President Obama. As the stakes have risen, the possible solutions have grown equally worrying.
So, have the progressive causes I’ve long cherished been hijacked by the zero-sum attitude of the ends always justify the means? Do we wish our political opponents ill? As our rhetoric becomes more divisive, are the winds of tension blowing more furiously than in 2016? Talk of America’s Cold Civil War is giving way to nervous chatter about an actual civil war. As the left increasingly retreats into uniform communities of thought, we allow the other to morph into a menacing caricature. When did our liberal dissent transform into righteous hatred?
The Illiberal Erosion of the Progressive Mind
Political polarization is not a new phenomenon. Political scientists have tracked how our distinct identities have increasingly converged around political ideology over the past three decades. In 2008, Stanford University noted that nearly a quarter of Republicans expressed concern at the thought of a son or daughter marrying a Democrat. By 2010, that figure had rocketed to 49 percent. Democrats who expressed similar views increased from 20 to 33 percent during the same period. Months before the 2016 Presidential election, Pew Research reported that animosity was creeping higher as 52 percent of Republicans labeled Democrats “closed-minded” while 70 percent of Democrats felt the same way about Republicans.
Trump’s election catapulted political polarization into the mainstream as stories proliferated of marriages destroyed, friendships ended and families torn apart by voting decisions. Media outlets documented alarming urban-rural divides between Democrat and Republican voters and featured ominous headlines like “Maybe It’s Time for America to Split Up.” The term affective polarization, was coined by Neil Malhotra and Shanto Iyengar to describe the phenomenon where one ideological pole describes the other as “hypocritical, selfish, and closed-minded.”
As affective polarization convulsed the country, it manifested on the left in two ways: the institutional mainstreaming of previously fringe progressive policies; and the normative rise of ideological purity. The former has produced legislative agendas that are more progressive than those of a decade ago as a democratic response to the Trump era. For example, nearly 87 percent of Democratic voters advocate the dismantling of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and progressive voters have rallied around the Green New Deal with its recommendation of Universal Basic Income. For many progressives, myself included, this is a welcome return to the core tenets of a liberal ideology discarded during the Clinton era.
The latter development, however, represents a cultural shift on the left that elevates ideological purity over nuanced debate. This trend first gained traction with the rise of cancel culture and campus-led efforts to integrate trigger warnings and consciousness-raising about microaggressions into curricula. However, these emerging norms that at first sought to address regressive viewpoints have now trained their sights on more surprising spaces. Data that explores the impact of social violence is summarily dismissed or condemned as insensitive; authors who sign open letters dedicated to debate are ridiculed or labeled as threatening; editorials containing controversial arguments that could provide the opening salvos of difficult but critical debates are removed. This worrying trend shreds open and nuanced dialogue in favor of a paroxysm of rage and righteousness.
This exacerbates our retreat into echo chambers of thought, skews our interactions with the other and can lead to disturbing confrontations. A New Yorker staff writer has claimed that “Free Speech is Killing Us”; Antifa members have violently attacked a “free speech” rally of Trump supporters protesting against Twitter in San Francisco. In the backdrop of these escalating developments, a small but increasingly vocal faction of the left has found itself edging towards the same dangerous footing as the right: abandoning the liberal principles that undergird our democracy.
While the far right has long held the media spotlight as the most legitimate threat facing democracy, the wave of illiberalism on the left has grown troubling. Michelle Goldberg and Amy Chua have written about the return of a “Tribal Left,” which obsesses over endlessly sub-dividing group identities, dictates the limits of acceptable speech and enforces rigid boundaries to prevent cultural appropriation. Over the past few months, the Tribal Left has been breaking ground on a more troubling norm: the espousal of actual political violence. In early October, democratic scholars shared the results of a YouGov survey that asked: “Would you condone violence if the other party’s candidate wins the presidential election?” Their survey showed that 1 in 3 Democrats and Republicans believe that violence would be justified to advance their political goals. Meanwhile, the timeline of our extremist attitudes increased from June to September as the proportion of Democrats who claimed that there would be “a lot” or “a great deal” of justification in political violence jumped from 16 to 19 percent. While this represents a small fraction of the electorate, other studies note that incidents of political violence tend to increase public approval of violence as a response mechanism, leading to a vicious cycle.
This acceptance of political violence is already playing out in places like Portland where reporters have noted the growing numbers of firearms owners among right and left-wing groups and the destruction of public property. CNN captured clashes between armed vigilante groups and protestors in Louisville following the verdict on the killing of Breonna Taylor. Most recently, Reuters has reported that guns sales are spiking among first-time buyers, including women, minorities and liberals. These observations place us on a risky path towards ever increasing levels of violence, outrage and distortion.
But there may be hope for progressives. And it stems from embracing a radical ideology often shunned in our polarized circles: moderation.
Moderation as a Radical Antidote to Violence
To be a moderate on the left is a tenuous position. The moderate left is castigated as a wolf in sheep’s clothing, criticized for swaying election outcomes, denounced as conservative on dating apps. I use the term moderate to describe a person who may share the values of her side but strives to curtail its worst and most illiberal impulses. Some also refer to such a person as an “in-group moderate.” The 2015 State of the Center poll portrays moderates as seeing both sides of complex issues and deviating from the restrictive ideological choices presented by modern politics. Moderates can internalize the values and moral foundations of liberal political orthodoxy while resisting its uglier applications. I am a staunch progressive. And I am also a committed moderate.
For those of us on the left disturbed by ideological purity and the growing acceptance of political violence, moderation provides a roadmap for action. Aurelian Crăiuțu, Professor of Political Science at Indiana University, has long touted the value of moderation and the need for its continued cultivation in our modern era. He notes “dialogue, disagreement, and civility are essential elements of the moderate’s creed, as are reliance on real facts and the need to maintain balance and fairness in society.” Crăiuțu suggests that moderation not only promotes consensus and compromise in policymaking, but can also serve as an antidote to “anarchy, violence and civil war.”
As some on the left incite us to dismiss our opponents as enemies, moderates bravely call for shared humanity and common experience. Moderates require a quiet stoicism in the face of crisis, balancing the outrage machine with a deeper focus on fighting back against our worst impulses and assuming the best of our colleagues, friends and communities. Acts of moderation allow us to stand firm against the violent winds of groupthink and extreme social pressure. Killer Mike’s emotional plea for peace in the wake of the George Floyd killing was an act of moderation. Liberal journalist Matt Taibbi’s challenge to the far-left’s acceptance of looting has been an act of moderation. But these bold positions need not always originate at the helm of America’s cultural elite.
Civic discourse organizations Braver Angels and Make America Dinner Again emerged in the aftermath of the 2016 election with the express intention of weaving a fabric of common purpose. These groups recognize that without coordinated conversations with our political opposites, polarization calcifies and causes us to embrace distorted caricatures of the opposing side. Braver Angels argues that we are much more than our political identities and, with courage, we can cross these lines with remarkable frequency. In churches, community centers, offices and now virtually, Braver Angels hosts inclusive conversations between prominent right-leaning voices and staunch progressives who find value in listening to contrasting political and ideological views and engaging in constructive debate with one another.
A recently commissioned YouGov poll found that nearly 70 percent of Americans still want to see the two political sides working together. To realize this, Braver Angels launched its With Malice Toward None initiative, bringing together religious congregations, civil society groups and academia in an effort to ease post-election divisions by promoting dialogue between voters on both sides. And if an uncertain election outcome gave rise to caustic discourse or violence, they planned to double-down on their mission to Hold America Together.
In our age of division, there is courage—even radicalism—in moderation. Moderation forces us to confront the uncomfortable possibility that political ideology cannot always be our supreme commander. Moderation claims that there is value in changing our minds. Moderation demands that we steady our hands in response to the emotional vortex of indignation and crisis churned out on social media and television. And moderation forces us to confront the worst impulses that flourish within our political tribes. To achieve these aims, we must unclench our fists and temper our righteousness with the possibility that we won’t always get it right. If we open a space where we can learn from each other, we may collectively do better over the next four years.
As we move into the tempestuous weeks leading to the inauguration, calls for Trump’s demise on social media will become louder as structural forces foment this divide. In response, we must hope we can drown out these cries with deeper calls of empathy and understanding. We must have difficult conversations with our family members and friends to counsel temperance and de-escalation. And, as Braver Angels notes, we must be “guided by our democratic and non-violent traditions and our sense of shared destiny.” For it is neither the liberal nor the conservative who threatens democracy but the menacing caricature we cultivate in the shadows of our imaginations. We can only hope that we don’t let those shadows become reality.