The Poison of Polarization: DC Violence Highlights America’s Deep Divisions

NEWS ANALYSIS: Catholic commentators point to deep social and spiritual causes for the growing split and an essential religious dimension in the way forward.

Trump supporters are tear gassed outside the U.S. Capitol in Washington on Jan. 6. Demonstrators breeched security and entered the Capitol as Congress debated the 2020 presidential election Electoral College vote certification.
Trump supporters are tear gassed outside the U.S. Capitol in Washington on Jan. 6. Demonstrators breeched security and entered the Capitol as Congress debated the 2020 presidential election Electoral College vote certification. (photo: ANDREW CABALLERO-REYNOLDS / AFP via Getty Images)

2020 was an ugly year for America. Tragic events of epic proportion, from the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic to George Floyd’s death and the accompanying unrest, were made all the more unbearable by the deeply divisive responses they spawned among the U.S. public. 

And as if to confirm that deep-seated polarization was here to stay, 2021 began with one of the ugliest moments in American political history, as a group of pro-Donald Trump protesters, disgruntled over the results of the presidential election, violently stormed the U.S. Capitol. Cumulatively, these events indicate that a deep political sickness has infected the soul of American political and social life.

“Now, polarization is really the background of everything,” said Bradley Lewis, a political philosopher at The Catholic University of America, speaking last month of the fissure between the political left and right on seemingly every issue. “Pretty much everything gets sucked into it and then reinterpreted on the basis of it.”

The positions individuals take on events or social questions in this context, Lewis said, may be less the product of an authentic assessment of what’s true or best for society and more of an effort to “express a partisan identity, even when [the issue] doesn’t necessarily have much at all to do with politics.”

Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone of San Francisco, for instance, told the Register in a December interview he has been struck by how questions concerning the efficacy of wearing masks to mitigate the spread of COVID, which would normally be resolvable by empiricism and objectivity, have instead become politicized.

“There are people who, on principle, will not wear a face covering and others who wear them all the time, even if they’re out early for a walk and nobody’s around,” noted the leader of the Archdiocese of San Francisco. “So it’s kind of like virtue signaling. Either way, it has become divorced from the science.”

Survey data supports this insight that partisanship has played an outsized role in shaping people’s decisions related to the virus, with one study finding that party affiliation was more likely to predict someone’s practice of prescribed social-distancing measures than were income, race, age or even the prevalence of COVID-19 in the area. And partisanship seems connected not just with an individual’s practices related to the virus, but even with the conclusions he or she draws about it: A Gallup poll found a 47% gap in those who believed the coronavirus was deadlier than the seasonal flu between Democrats (87%) and Republicans (40%).

When it comes to the problem of polarization, R.R. Reno, the editor in chief of First Things, thinks it’s important to clarify that the issue is not only that Americans might be more divergent in their political views than in years past, but, more importantly, that they hold those views with an increased absolutism.

This is also borne out in the data. A January study entitled “Lethal Mass Partisanship”  found that 42% of the people in each major political party view their partisan counterparts not merely as misguided, but as “evil.” Also this month, Stanford economists found that the level of negative sentiment between Democrats and Republicans has grown from 27% in 1978 to 46% by 2016. Additionally, the rate of parental disapproval for “interparty” marriages has risen significantly in recent decades.

“So even if people are more polarized than they were, we still need to recognize that politics has become far more important in 2020 than it was in 1980, when I was in college,” said Reno.


A Politicized Nation

According to the Catholic commentators the Register spoke to last month, the “politicization” of U.S. life — the expansion of partisanship to seemingly every issue and the intensification of partisan commitments — that has driven polarization is itself the product of another development over the years: secularization.

Different thinkers used different terms to describe the role that religion previously played in society, even a pluralistic one like the United States. Reno talked about “a sacred canopy” of shared fundamental commitments regarding faith and morality, under which different parties could disagree peaceably; Lewis, referring to the descriptions of the U.S. by 19th-century French historian Alexis de Tocqueville, spoke of a shared transcendent orientation that could unify disparate elements of society; and Archbishop Cordileone spoke of a system of shared values that provided social cohesion. 

Whatever way it’s described, all agreed that the eclipse of religion and transcendent truths from public life has had disastrous effects for social harmony, with politics coming to play a disproportionate role in people’s lives.

“For many people, maybe even not so consciously, politics has become a kind of religious reality for them,” said Lewis. “Everything [political] becomes a matter of an absolutely supreme principle. And that’s really very, very destructive.”

Carlo Lancellotti, the authoritative English-language translator and editor of 20th-century Italian Catholic political philosopher Augusto Del Noce, says Europe’s history over the past 100 years is evidence that where secularization occurs, such as in Germany in the 1920s, the result isn’t the stifling of man’s religious instinct, but, rather, the transfer of this religious impulse to the realm of politics.

“When there is strong secularization, people kind of recur to political religions,” he said. “Politics becomes a source of identity that replaces religious identity. And so people become militant because that’s what gives them a sense of purpose, a sense of being somebody, a sense of belonging to a movement.”

When politics becomes a matter of identity, and not simply “the art of the possible,” Lewis says there can be no room for compromise.

“The slogan of the 1960s, that the personal is political, is even more true now, because politics really is the way for people to express their identities,” said Lewis. “And where that’s the issue, you can’t compromise.”


Other Factors

In addition to the philosophical and anthropological origins of the present polarization crisis in the U.S., those interviewed for this story pointed to a variety of social and economic factors that have exacerbated national divisions. Reno, for instance, highlighted a “growing economic polarization” that upended a well-integrated economic system that balanced the interests of the wealthy and the working class and held sway through World War II and into the second half of the 20th century. 

While not pointing to one factor alone that eroded a sense of economic harmony, he suggested that globalization and the failures of trickle-down economics all played a part.

Another major fault line is the widening culture gap between the college educated — “the university class” — and the working class. Citing The New Elite, by David Lebedoff, Lancellotti suggested that an influential upper class has come into power in the past 50 years, grounding its identity in academic credentials, professional achievements and a cosmopolitan lifestyle. According to this analysis, because this elite group defines itself in opposition to the lower classes, who historically tend to be more religious and culturally conservative, pushing cultural boundaries and advancing progressive policies becomes a mode of securing one’s identity.

In turn, influential institutions like the education system, government and the media are dominated by elites who not only have little in common with working-class people, but may exercise, at best, a kind of paternalism and, at worst, a disdain for those they are empowered to lead.

Take the national media. As Reno put it, there’s no longer a “Walter Cronkite” figure, recognized by nearly all as a reliable conveyer of facts. Instead, the post-war generation of reporters and producers, made of up of veterans who shared a common experience, has been replaced by a kind of “prestige media” that may tout its racial and sexual diversity, but has very little in the way of intellectual variety, let alone religious mooring. Trust in these institutions from “middle America” is further hampered when, for instance, attending one’s father’s funeral is discouraged due to COVID-19 concerns while Black Lives Matter protests in the streets are celebrated by the elites.

“This feeling of being manipulated and rolled has just reached a crisis point,” said Reno. “And that’s one reason the information system has become so fragmented and ineffective.” As a result, entire segments of the country disregard entirely what government authorities or the mass media have to say, not engaging arguments on the merits, but denying them because of who advances them.


Dangers for Catholics

Archbishop Cordileone described this major contributor to polarization as a culture of mistrust fostered by elite hypocrisy and abuses of power.

But he and other commentators are also quick to point out that Catholics and others with more traditional values are not necessarily free from blame for the effects of polarization. As Reno noted, citing Henri de Lubac, oftentimes a response to a heresy can be tinged with heresy, as well, because it’s forced to respond on its opponent’s terms. 

“And so there’s always that peril that, in contending against error, we take on its complexion, so to speak,” he said. 

One way in which this can happen: falling prey to “apocalypticism,” the idea that “everything is going to be lost unless we do X or Y.” Although it can be engaged in with the best of intentions, apocalypticism is ultimately a worldly perspective, elevating the significance of political matters above transcendent truths. This is true whether one engaging in it is on the left or the right.

“We have to recognize that although politicians and fundraisers have interests in whipping us up into a frenzy of fear and anxiety, while the problems we face are real, there’s always a tomorrow,” said Reno. “There’s always another place to stand.”

Related to apocalypticism is a kind of engagement with reality that prioritizes achieving one’s preferred outcome over authentically seeking the truth. Lancellotti said in this scenario even science can become a victim, because it is reduced to an instrument to advance an ideology. “Ideology is when knowledge is not about discovering truth, but about gaining power,” he said, describing a phenomenon that certainly applies to progressive causes like transgenderism but can affect anyone who bends the truth to fit their preconceptions. 

Archbishop Cordileone added that such an approach, characterized by the “will to power,” also prevents any real engagement with others.

“With this kind of absolutist mentality, it cuts off that possibility,” he said. “So we can’t really come to understand each other.”

He added that a polarized climate such as ours can give rise to intellectual short cuts, such as adopting positions on a whole set of issues not based on the merits of arguments and facts, but because they’ve been endorsed by someone who speaks out against our opponents. “It’s easy to see where there are falsehoods with those who disagree with you. But there are also falsehoods, or inaccurate portrayals, from those who agree with you.”


A Way Forward

Some mainstream pundits speculate that with establishment politician Joe Biden set to replace the unconventional and often divisive Donald Trump in the Oval Office, polarization in the United States will be tamped down. Catholic commentators, however, are skeptical of this prospect, given the inadequacy of a merely political fix for a problem that is ultimately spiritual, as well as a pattern of polarization that, although perhaps exacerbated by him, long preceded and perhaps even produced the presidency of Trump. 

Furthermore, many point out that, despite his rhetoric of unity, Biden has already taken divisive and unnecessary steps, such as announcing his support for repealing the Hyde Amendment, which prevents federal money from funding abortions, or his planned nomination of a zealous abortion-rights activist to serve as secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services.

Although polarization won’t be a quick fix, those interviewed for this story all suggested that Catholics have an important role to play in our current political and social climate. One point of emphasis was the Catholic tradition’s emphasis on sound reason as an antidote to distorted and manipulative uses of knowledge today. Lewis describes the Church’s emphasis on genuine rational inquiry as “deep in its DNA,” while Archbishop Cordileone held up St. Thomas Aquinas — with his dedication to reasoned argument and his significant efforts to understand the points of his opponents — as a model for Catholics today.

Kim Daniels, associate director of the Initiative on Catholic Social Thought and Public Life, emphasized engaging with others with a “hermeneutic of goodwill,” which entails not rushing to judgment, not imposing preexisting frameworks on people, and prioritizing reflection over reaction. She also recommended taking breaks from social media, perhaps coinciding with liturgical seasons like Advent or Lent, or on Sunday as part of one’s day of rest.

“Avoiding social media echo chambers by working hard to receive information from a wide variety of trustworthy sources is also important, as is reflection on the biases we bring to our own media consumption,” she said.

Lancellotti recommended something, perhaps, more fundamental.

“In some sense, the work here is to rediscover the religious sense, our deepest human needs and questions, and to put politics back in its place,” he said, maintaining that only a renewal of religious experience and belonging corresponds to man’s needs, which, if unfulfilled, contribute to politicization and polarization. 

“I have to take a step back and take a deep breath and realize that there are bigger things than politics.”

He added that the Church must reject any attempt to define itself according to the political terms of the world. Instead, “the Church is defined by proposing Christ.” He says only a Church that is unashamed of Christ — whose members can rely on a deep experience of Christ present in the sacraments and in community — and is convinced that Jesus is the answer to the deepest human questions will be able to overcome polarization within its ranks and resist its diminishment in society.

“The Church should be its own original cultural answer,” Lancelotti said. “The fact that too many Catholics fail to propose an original response and feel so compelled to embrace one of the two secular answers is, in a sense, a failure of faith and a failure of evangelization.”


Forming a New Consensus

Reno of First Things, likewise, insisted that the Church’s greatest contribution will come from drawing upon its own resources and expresses hesitancy about “dialogue,” at least in the way mainstream culture uses the term. He said it never applies to issues progressives refuse to comprise on and “is typically a term used to describe how we have to concede.” Given the power of relativism in this day and age, he encouraged Catholics to be clear and confident in expressing moral truths the faith provides when they engage with others in charity.

Reno also suggested that Catholics not view our polarized climate as an inherently bad thing. While Catholics have a duty to moderate the extremes caused by polarization, he said the divisiveness of the present political moment is an indication that the governing consensus of the past few decades, which was not necessarily congenial to people of faith, is inadequate. Although public life seems unstable, that may also be an indication that there are opportunities to promote a healthier society. 

“We need to work towards forming a new consensus for Western societies, one that’s more organized around faith, family and community,” Reno said. “And I think people of faith actually can play a very important role in this new consensus, because we come to the language of solidarity quite naturally and practically.”