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Polarization and the politics of love

Hanauer is director of the One America Movement, a nonprofit founded by faith and community leaders to address growing divisions in American society.

There is a false notion in our national conversation right now that you have to choose between mushy calls for civility and standing up for "truth and justice." This misunderstands the nature of polarization, and it misunderstands the multi-faceted fight for actual truth and justice.

Julie Kohler of the Democracy Alliance recently made a series of standard arguments against what she calls "love politics." Kohler argued that focusing on the tone of our politics leaves us papering over the real injustices that have taken place in our history and are still taking place today. This can be true. She argued that the unmerited anger of the oppressor is not equivalent to the righteous anger of the oppressed. Absolutely true. And she argued that being nice to our opponents will not prevent the significant wrongs being perpetrated in our country by some of the people who wield power. This is unquestionably true.

Kohler is right to challenge political narratives rooted in love to be about more than sentimental politeness. If we're going to bring our country together, we need to do more than promote civility — we need to understand polarization for what it really is.


I direct an anti-polarization organization. In our work fighting division, we partner with a number of neuroscientists, social scientists, academics and experts who have worked to reduce conflict in countries around the world. They all see the warning signs here in the United States; many have shifted from working overseas to working here. None of them talk about "civility" or "tone."

What they talk about is the process of a society fragmenting into two increasingly irreconcilable teams. When that happens, a series of dynamics start to kick in that push us further and further apart. At these tipping points, polarization begins to fuel itself, rather than be fueled by disagreement over policies. When that happens, societies can move toward very, very dangerous outcomes.

Consider that 20 percent of Democrats and 15 percent of Republicans said recently that they sometimes feel like the country would be better off if large numbers of members of the other party simply died. Consider that the Fund for Peace ranks the United States as having the worst trending social cohesion indicators of any country in the world over the past five years. Consider that the research shows that our divides are increasingly about our identities (who we are) and less and less about our ideologies (what we believe).

We can negotiate with the other side about what we believe. We can't negotiate about who we are.

That is what polarization is about. Not "civility." Not "tone." Incivility can certainly deepen polarization (when's the last time you carefully considered the opinions of a person screaming at you and calling you names?). But calling for everyone to be civil is missing the larger dynamics at play. And caricaturing anti-polarization work as being about asking people to "calm down" (as Kohler put it) is misunderstanding the true purpose of the work.

So yes, polarization should worry us — not because it might lead to people not being nice to each other when they argue politics, but because it might lead to our country fracturing irreparably. And with that fracturing comes increased violence and hate.

And polarization should worry us because it makes it harder to address the issues that impact people's lives. Kohler was right that truth and justice are more important than civility. Civility isn't more important than children being separated from their parents at the border, or communities being decimated by closed factories, or racism or the opioid crisis. But polarization makes it harder to solve those problems. For instance, some of our polarization is "false." For example, a forthcoming Beyond Conflict study found that on issues of border security, both Democrats and Republicans believe that the divide between members of the two parties is twice as big as it actually is. Once we realize we don't disagree as deeply as we think we do, collaboration is a lot more likely.

Kohler was right that we do need a politics of love that goes deeper — an effort to bridge our deepening divides that accounts for our history and for the lived experiences of Americans whose voices aren't often fully represented in our political system (and those Americans exist on the right and left both). The One America Movement brings communities together across divides to act on issues that matter in their communities. Through that collaboration, participants build trust. And when they trust each other, they can begin to have difficult conversations about the really tough issues: racism, identity, history.

These conversations must then be converted into action. When we are truly in relationships with each other, our neighbor's concerns become our concerns. Collective action across divides is powerful — and in many cases, is what changes public policy in ways that truly make a difference in people's lives.

Our choice isn't between civility and justice. Our choice is whether we are going to allow our country to fracture beyond repair. If we do, truth and justice won't be the winners.

We’re all about the issues that have broken American democracy — and efforts to make governments work again for you, your family and your friends.
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Swing states build 2020 hacking protections: Will they hold?

With the presidency on the ballot in less than a year, fears of another attempt by Russia or other foreign powers to interfere in the election seem to grow with each passing day.

But in the battlegrounds where the outcome will be decided — the 13 states almost certain to be most hotly contested by both parties — election security has been tightening and the opportunities for a successful hacking of American democracy are being greatly reduced, a review of the procedures and equipment on course to be used in each state in November 2020 makes clear.

"There's been a huge amount of progress since 2016," says Elaine Kamarck, an election security expert at the Brookings Institution. James Clapper, a former director of national intelligence, says his assessment of the fight against election interference results in feeling "confident that a lot has been done to make it better."

In fact, many who work on the issue now cite the public's perception that our election systems are vulnerable as a problem at least as great as the actual threat.

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The 13 states where election security matters most

Along with the candidates and the issues, the 2020 presidential election is also going to be about the voting process itself.

Russian efforts to hack into the voting systems of 2016 have boosted election security to a critical concern this time, prompting states to spend tens of millions buying new equipment, hiring cybersecurity wizards and installing software that warns of intrusions — among numerous other steps. More purchases of hardware, software and expertise are coming in the months ahead.

Whether enough money gets spent, and wisely, won't be known for sure until Nov. 3, 2020 — when the system will be subject to the one test that really matters. And whether the country decides the presidential election result is trustworthy will likely come down to how reliably things work in the relatively small number of states both nominees are contesting.

[Swing states build 2020 hacking protections: Will they hold?]

With 11 months to go, The Fulcrum reviewed information from state elections officials, the National Conference of State Legislatures, the Election Assistance Commission and news reports to get a sense of the election security landscape. Here's the state of play in the 13 states likeliest to be presidential battlegrounds.

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"Money in our political system has completely eroded the promise of a functioning and just democracy," argues Wambui Gatheru.

For the young, getting big money out of politics is the cause of our time

Gatheru is the outreach manager at American Promise, which advocates for amending the Constitution to permit laws that regulate the raising and spending of campaign funds. She graduated two years ago from the University of Connecticut.

When young Americans come together, we can make a big impact. That's what we've seen throughout history. Alexander Hamilton and Betsy Ross were in their early 20s during the American Revolution. Frederick Douglass was 23 years old when he took the stage at the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society. Alice Paul through her 20s led the fight for the 19th Amendment and women's voting rights.

And that's what we're seeing today in youth-led climate movements around the globe and the movement to end mass shootings here in the United States. But one issue that doesn't get as much attention sits at the root of our modern problems: big money in politics.

Money in our political system has completely eroded the promise of a functioning and just democracy. Due to a series of Supreme Court cases, corporations have the same rights as humans, special interests control Capitol Hill and democracy only works for those who can afford it. This is the dystopia my generation has inherited.

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Howard Dean and Barack Obama pioneered the drive for small-dollar contributors. Now, such donations have become an important measuring stick and may be contributing to increased polarization.

Small-dollar gifts hardly a cure-all for money’s smear on politics, one professor argues

The explosion of small-donor political contributions is often celebrated and extolled as one of the few positive developments amid all the problems facing the democracy reform movement.

Not so fast, argues New York University law school professor Richard Pildes. In a new essay published in the Yale Law Journal Forum, he argues the proliferation of modest contributions to candidates may be contributing to more political polarization and, at least, requires more careful examination.

Pildes also says the proposals to promote more small-donor giving that are part of the House Democrats' comprehensive political process overhaul, known as HR 1, could have unintended negative consequences.

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