Can America’s Tattered Civic Life Be Repaired?
An Institute of Politics discussion on the possibility of reconciliation in American public discourse
“Something’s gone awry,” said Atlantic editor Jeffrey Goldberg on Tuesday evening, kicking off a conversation at the Harvard Institute of Politics on the tattered state of American civic life and the prospects for repairing it. The event’s title read like an ominous open question: “American Reconciliation and Its Alternatives.”
Joining Goldberg on stage were Adam Serwer, an Atlantic staff writer and 2019 Shorenstein fellow who is among Donald Trump’s most trenchant critics, and political philosopher Danielle Allen, the Conant University Professor and director of Harvard’s Safra Center for Ethics. Both contributed essays to The Atlantic’s December magazine, a special issue organized under the theme “How To Stop a Civil War.” Allen’s argument, which she explicated for the Kennedy School audience, is that democracy cannot survive without a broad commitment to union and to basic structures of cooperation, despite people’s differences and dislikes, despite wins and losses at the ballot box. “If people get so riled up at each other that they refuse to go along with the results of democratic contests, then the thing will break up,” Allen said. “And if you accept the idea of a breakup, then your smaller groups will have the same problem—they’ll break up as well.”
Reconciliation doesn’t always mean civility, Allen clarified. There is room for protest and fiery rhetoric and contentious disagreement, but all of that must be accompanied by a commitment to the ongoing relationship. “You can think of it as a principle of charity,” Allen said, a term she invoked more than once during the evening, “and you can also think of it as ‘Fake it till you make it.’”
Her main worry, she explained, is that disunity and strife—“what George Washington called ‘factionalism’”—allows demagogues to rise up and take control, inflaming divisions while stripping away public power and citizens’ capacity for collective decision-making. “And of course, we have a lot of things to fight about in the cultural space right now, because the country had an informal constitution of patriarchal and race-based hierarchy all the way into the twentieth century”—which in recent decades has crumbled, but has not been completely supplanted by egalitarian norms and ideas. The resulting fight between the two sides of American culture consumes the country’s whole politics, she said, displacing everything else that should be part of the business of self-governance.
Serwer, whose Atlantic essay was titled “Against Reconciliation,” framed the dilemma a little differently. “Our civility problem is actually a polarization problem,” he said, “and our polarization problem is born of our unresolved race question.” Noting that the country’s two major political parties are increasingly separated along racial, religious, and cultural lines—with mostly white, mostly Christian Republicans opposing a more heterodox Democratic party—he recalled an earlier era in American history that bears some similarities: Reconstruction. After the Civil War, the heated racial polarization between the all-white Democratic party and a Republican party that included newly emancipated and enfranchised blacks was eased by a bipartisan acquiescence to white supremacy, which excluded black constituents from political participation for nearly a century. “So my argument is that this question of reconciliation should not be prized over the survival of liberal democracy itself,” Serwer said. And the terms on which polarization ends “are far more important than the fact that it ends. And if it does not end in a way that recognizes the full citizenship of all Americans, regardless of background, then it’s not going to be a real or a true reconciliation.”
There were moments when the inescapable hugeness of the challenge—and the difficulty sometimes of imagining a way forward—snapped sharply into focus. Serwer described the “existential battle against annihilation” that a segment of Republican voters see themselves as fighting, and the abuses of presidential power that mindset permits in a figure like Trump, who promises to protect them: “I don’t know how you resolve that in a way that makes people feel like they’re not fighting for their lives,” he said. At one point, Goldberg mentioned that the “two parts of America” live in “wholly different realities,” a comment that seemed to come jarringly to life 30 minutes later, when, during the Q&A, an audience member rose to complain that “The president has brought peace and prosperity, but no matter what he does, there’s a negative reaction … on the part of the press.” Serwer’s answer was swift: “The media is not a monolith,” he said, “but if you’re wondering why the press has not reported that [Trump] has brought peace and prosperity, it’s because he has not done that.”
Earlier, the speakers had discussed the structural elements of the Senate and the Electoral College that allow Republicans to maintain power while representing a minority of the electorate, leading to what Serwer called a “destructive stalemate” in which the party has no need to reach out to other voters. “Is there another pathway?” Goldberg asked. “If the Republicans can’t structurally lose, how does this change?”
“I don’t know,” Serwer said.
Allen, though, did see a pathway, or at least the beginnings of one. “I agree with Adam’s core point,” she said, “that reconciliation that doesn’t include everybody isn’t reconciliation.” But, she added: “There are meaningful reforms we can undertake.” One might be increasing the size of the House of Representatives, to balance out the disproportionate voting power of rural areas, but most of the changes would need to start not with the president or even Congress, but with state and local leaders. Allen advocated things like independent redistricting commissions, to counteract gerrymandering, and ranked-choice voting, which lends each vote more weight and, evidence suggests, has a moderating effect on how candidates campaign. “Mayors can drive ranked choice voting to cities and teach Americans what it is,” Allen said, and the effects could eventually ripple out to alter electoral dynamics at the federal level. “The point is, we’re not trapped in a federal structure, because we have this amazing, elastic, state system.”
The conversation ranged widely. Allen, Serwer, and Goldberg talked about Obama-to-Trump voters and the dangers embedded in Congress’s perpetually basement-level approval ratings, and how disappointments with Barack Obama’s presidency (both real and manufactured) played a role in the current political straits. They talked about deaths of despair—among whites, but also among black and brown men—and the broader effects on public discourse of Americans’ impulse toward excessively punitive measures. They discussed how current free-speech debates echo earlier generations’ arguments about the boundaries of decency and respect, and how the country would be better off if the affluent sent their children to public schools, “maybe the only institution left in America,” Serwer said, “where people of completely different class, social, and ethnic backgrounds can meet each other and learn what it’s like to be around people who are different.”
Toward the end of the evening, a Harvard College sophomore asked the group about education reform and its potential to create “a spirit of reconciliation.” Allen took the question first, and her answer wound toward something more expansive, approaching the fundamental problem undergirding the entire evening. “We need to rebuild civic education,” she said, one more thing lost to polarized clashes, this time over the “common core” and how to narrate the history of the country. “We have fights over whether we tell the gory story or the glory story,” Allen said: enslavement and genocide or American triumphalism. That fight is “poisonous,” she said, and in the end largely pointless. “The work we collectively have to do…is face the need to integrate those two stories. We can be honest about the crimes of the founding, and at the same time we can be appreciative about positive inventions.” The place to start in thinking about how education might open up a space for tolerance “is to be tolerant, actually,” she said. Accept that there are parts of the “glory story” that are OK. And be clear and honest about the gory, “without letting it pull us into dismissivism.”
Allen paused for a moment. “I think this is actually the hardest work we have in front of us: getting ourselves to a space where we are collectively willing to tell ourselves a story about who we are as Americans that has both those pieces in it”...that contains all of us.