It is apparent that radical liberal politics are just as dangerous, uncompromising and self-referential as radical conservative politics. The more extreme and inflexible the position at either point on the political continuum, the more disconnecting and destructive its response to opposition. Devotees withdraw into a bastion of self-affirming sameness; disciples lock arms, signaling partisan virtue with unquestioning adherence to orthodoxy; and evangelists encourage tribal authentication with evermore rarefied acts of militancy. Theory and tradition wage a vicious war, while the moral high-ground is ceded to political expediency and narrow cultural dominion, subordinating truth, tolerance, and reason.
Both sides of the breach are caricatures of their foundational attributes. The left is illiberal in its demand for conformity, and the right is revolutionary in its subversive indifference to diplomacy. Ironically, the mantles are interchangeable.
A blend of earnest, anxious, and mean-spirited activism is consecrated at the core of each party, supported by rearguard dons who cling recklessly to power, regardless of the prevarications and preconditions necessary to maintain their grip. Voices of moderation are bullied into silence. Honest, open-minded attempts at understanding and reciprocal accommodation result in ridicule, hostility and excommunication—social and political drama of the most perverse kind.
The untamed instinct to neutralize extreme opposition by cleaving to the opposing extreme, and shouting insults across the divide, is both primitively self-indulgent and lavishly unwise. Dwelling exclusively in these diverging camps reveals a distorting hypocrisy and signifies the destruction of a unifying dream—the American dream. A more productive and sustainable response to this conflict is informed compromise and deliberate moderation, a centering and healing diplomacy, whether we wield the power or chafe against it. America has to rethink culture and change, and Americans have to outgrow the divisive vestiges of our tribal heritage. If not, the country runs the very real risk of becoming yet another cautionary tale of a great enterprise falling behind and failing or tearing itself apart.
A good place to start is a serious commitment to exploring and developing our empathy. Opening ourselves to other perspectives with the goal of understanding and the grace of good will, though not necessarily agreement or conformity, is the first step. Avoid virtue signaling, media echo chambers, and most of all, avoid authoritarian leadership, chief among the many societal traps that lead to homogeneity of thought and punishment of dissent. We must reverse the trend of political polarization; expand our circle of empathy; humanize our neighbors; find the personal resonance in outsiders to bring them in; build on diverse histories and create shared experience; smile at strangers; be open to change. When we practice this approach to human interaction, the invitation will more than likely be returned in kind, and the tribe of humanity will grow and thrive.
As we become more accepting, welcoming, and trusting of difference, our decision-making as a culture will improve and our understanding of the world around us will be enriched. There is an intelligence in groups of people with varied histories, experiences, and perspectives that cannot be matched by individuals or homogeneous groups. When a diverse group of people cooperates in a network of trusted relationships, there is integration of ideas and culture without appropriation; there is familiarity without judgement; and there is balance without abasement.
Empathy is the key to establishing the trust and exercising the wisdom that is within our collective reach. Yet the cultural gravity is shifting to the margins, pulling people apart, and exciting a fracturing wave of racial, cultural, and political exclusivity. We impose these boundaries reflexively, precluding the kind of proximity that builds and sustains empathy. Instead, we should examine and acknowledge our biases. We all have them. They are but one thread in the complex weave of our human nature. If we recognize our own imperfect aspects and adaptations as things we have in common with every other human being, and we open ourselves to mutual improvement, while still honoring the best of our existing traditions and beliefs, we will be one step closer to accepting the imperfections and, more importantly, the differences in others.
This is how we evolve, become a more perfect union, and revitalize the breathtaking, bewildering and, though imperfectly executed, brilliant experiment called America.