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Fighting 'Us Versus Them' Populism

Is there a way for people to look beyond the political divide, find common ground, and rebuild their trust in democracy?
Former presidential candidates Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton.

America is deeply divided. High levels of economic inequality and a broken political system have left people anxious about, resentful of, and disenchanted by the government, whether because they feel immigrants and other minorities have taken advantage of policies that favor them over the rest, or because they believe elites have rigged the system at their expense.

This murky brew of emotions can be put into a single question: Whose fault is it?

When so many Americans think that there's more that separates than unifies them, is there a way to move past this "us versus them" populism? And is there a way to look beyond the political divide, find common ground, and ensure that there are mechanisms for people to participate in politics and, ultimately, rebuild their trust in democracy as we know it?

The short answer is "yes." The longer, and more complicated, answer is what New America Director of Studies Mark Schmitt, joined by Yascha Mounk, Peter Wehner, Lydia Bean, Vanessa Williamson, and Dorian Warren, discussed at New America's annual conference—and it's an answer that speaks to the need for radical empathy and a belief in a shared fate.

Mounk, a New America senior fellow, argued that, in order to understand the chaos of American democracy today, it's important to think about it not in binary terms, but as "a series of interlocking series of causes": it's not either the economy and the consequences of globalization and automation or demographic changes and the rise of identity politics; it's all of those things—together. The driving forces of populism today, explained Wehner, a senior fellow at the Ethics & Public Policy Center, are of course influenced by bigotry and homophobia, but they are also very much a result of real phenomena and legitimate concerns.

An influx of immigrants over the last several decades has altered the cultural and racial make-up of the United States. Changing social hierarchies—thanks, in no small part, to the civil rights movement as well as a series of other progressive victories—has meant that some dominant groups have begun to see their social and economic standing fall in relation to the rest of society. And, more than that, they aren't prepared to deal with this change. At the same time, an epic economic shift—fueled by the rise of high-skilled labor and low-wage jobs—has "made it harder for Americans to find an earned social identity, so they end up focusing on other identities," Mounk pointed out. The working class has come to see itself as the white working class. These slow, incremental changes could no longer be ignored by those affected by it, and this has made people see politics as a zero-sum game: a competition between them and everyone else over scarce resources and a battle over what it means to be "a thriving American today."

According to Wehner, many Americans see these challenges as insurmountable at least in part because "the political system and its institutions, whose responsibility is to rise to the moment and reassure those who feel vulnerable, have failed to do so." A lack of leadership, among both the Democratic and Republican parties, in putting forth solutions to this democratic crisis has left a leadership vacuum—one that has been filled by those who have decided to address fear in a way that has only widened already yawning social and political cleavages.

No one said that these divisions can't be conquered, though. The array of solutions that have been put forward—particularly ubiquitous since November—are both long and short term. But what they all have in common is an attempt to find ways to make American democracy evolve to serve a country that has grown and changed by engaging people at the community level, ensuring that there are mechanisms for people to participate in meaningful ways, find common ground, and rebuild their trust in democracy.

Bridging the divide requires reinvigorating people's attachment to democratic norms.

Some of the most urgent and obvious solutions include improving people's standard of living and making it so that people feel that the system—in the form of its representatives as well as its institutions—works for them again. This was a point that Mounk made, explaining how automation and globalization have changed the nature of work, rendering certain jobs obsolete and therefore leaving many Americans without a way to earn an income. Understanding what the future of work will look like—and how policymakers can repair or install systems that address whatever changes face them—will be an ongoing, long-term endeavor.

But, most importantly, bridging the divide requires reinvigorating people's attachment to democratic norms. They must be reminded that democratic norms are worth preserving, even if reforms are necessary. People should also be made aware of the commonalities they share with their fellow citizens. What does this mean in practice? It means transmitting political values to the next generation in the classroom. According to Mounk, educators play a key role in explaining the value of democracy and why it's worth preserving. Wehner echoed this sentiment, driving home that it's crucial to "[transmit] respect and reverence to liberal norms and traditions."

But how else can we stitch up these holes in democratic discourse?

Two words: Civic capacity. Increasing civic capacity, as well as shoring up people's feeling of political efficacy, is another way to bolster democratic norms. For Wehner, that can come in the form of "fostering a new civic culture that channels anger and frustrations in constructive ways" and tapping into already existing undercurrents of civic capacity. One of the oldest and most common civic duties is the act of paying taxes. It can be one of the many ways to "talk about how you contribute to your community and keep government representatives accountable," said Williamson, a fellow at the Brookings Institution—and it's a move that doesn't turn frustration into ugly forms of populism.

Shying away from the politics of division, in other words, means providing people with the tools to help them understand and deal with the sense of dislocation that they might feel, argued Bean, executive director of Faith in Texas, an organization that brings people together based on their shared identity of faith. While that might seem like a counterintuitive strategy, Bean argued that it's crucial to "name the problem that people are often scared to name." Once you do that, people are willing to have those tough conversations and to lean into the work much more quickly. In the case of Texas, that meant having open and honest conversations about race and identity. Bean has found that it's impossible to address the pain and anxiety felt by the white working class around their economic future and their sense of belonging without also talking about the changes their demographic has experienced. And beyond that, it's key to make clear that everyone—Latinos, black Americans, and working-class whites—suffer together; they're not adversaries, but rather members of the same community.

For Warren, a fellow at the Roosevelt Institute, that's both the biggest challenge and the most feasible way to pave the way to solving the current political crisis. The realities and fates of those who are victims of the war on drugs and mass incarceration, of those who fear deportation, and of those who no can longer count on their job to find their self-worth because of the consequences of globalization and automation, are all woven together—and, in some way or another, they're all products of a system that has failed. Indeed, there's more that unites them than separates them.

Populism will only be defeated if the cultural and ideological silos that keep Americans apart are broken—"one person and one community at a time," Wehner said. We must all take that bold step outside of our bubbles, where we'll find how much we're all in this together and how valuable American democracy is—and why we should do everything we can to preserve it.

This story originally appeared in New America's digital magazine, New America Weekly, a Pacific Standard partner site. Sign up to get New America Weekly delivered to your inbox, and follow @NewAmerica on Twitter.