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Nov 2, 2020

Depolarization of America

Tomorrow night, or a few days later, half of this country will be celebrating, while the other half will be fuming. In close elections, turn-out is king, and therefore both parties engage in the “vote or die” theatrics. Both imply that the world as we know it will end if their side loses. Republicans promise that Biden will turn USA into USSR, complete with the Gulag and shortage of toilet paper. Democrats say that four more years of Trump will turn the US into Republic of Gilead, complete with burning down the White House, and hanging “deviants” from lighting poles. None of this is true, of course. Everyone should go out and vote, but we also need to look at the morning of November 4, or whenever all the votes will be tallied.

There is no moral equivalency. In an irrational and self-destructing impulse, the Republican party has succumbed to the allure of an immoral populist demagogue. Democrats bear a much lesser responsibility for the advanced polarization. This is not about evenly allocating the blame; I am worried about what is to happen next. The truth is that the electoral defeat will not make the other side disappear. And while enormous treasure and efforts were spent on polarizing this country, almost no one is thinking of any effective strategies to de-polarize it. How do you actually come down from the high fever?

Excessive polarization undermines the political institutions that both sides of the conflict theoretically need to preserve. In practice though, the parties use the pro-institution agenda for partisan purposes. For example, Republicans object to the undue influence of unelected top officials (the so-called Deep State theory), perpetually suspect voter fraud, and resent the liberal bias of mass media outlets. Democrats, in turn, resent the accusation. In their view, the conspiracy theories undermine the trust in democracy itself. Democrats point at voter suppression techniques. They also accuse Republican of failure to distance themselves from White nationalism. Both sides do it for the sake of democracy. It is easy to see how such a tug of war can destabilize the institutions. Any political institution is as strong as public trust in it.

It is not clear where the de-polarization agenda would come from. Hopefully the winner, whichever it is, will have enough sense to work on it after the victory. It is tempting to use temporary dominance to completely destroy the opposition, but such a strategy only leads to further polarization. At the minimum, someone has to articulate the common interests: reducing the vitriolic rhetoric, developing a bipartisan plan for strengthening the institutions, reforming both the social media and mainstream mass media, rooting out conspiracy theory mongers from the acceptable public discourse. A lot of things had slipped backwards and need to be restored. The traditional barrier between opinion and news operations had been eroding in both Fox and CNN. Despite the meek efforts to control it, social media remain a vehicle for paranoia-induced theories.

Biden seems to understand this, and has sounded some conciliar tones even before the elections. I just hope he has plans that do not end with his victory speech. Trump, however, is another matter. His whole strategy is built on mobilization through polarization. The depolarization process will probably be postponed for four more years if he wins. Again, I don’t think it would mean the death of democracy. The US has a robust set of institutions other than the presidency.

The core of the de-polarization strategy is NOT in trying to convert each other. It is in emphasizing the common interests, strengthening the democratic institutions, and toning down the rhetoric of mutual political annihilation.

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