Building a Shared Worldview Among Democrats and Republicans Could Be More Dangerous Than Healing

Bring people together around protecting democracy instead.

A protester carries a “Register to Vote” sign during a peaceful demonstration against police brutality in Los Angeles on June 6.
A protester carries a “Register to Vote” sign during a peaceful demonstration against police brutality in Los Angeles on June 6. Mario Tama/Getty Images

For the past four years, the United States has been lurching from one political outrage to another. Time after time, President Donald Trump’s administration has broken norms or laws, triggering dozens of hot takes and thousands of appalled tweets. Now, as the United States rapidly approaches a presidential election, the attacks on its political process are accelerating; most recently, Trump has declined to commit to a peaceful transition if he loses the vote in November. Morally outraged think pieces and apocalyptic tweets are not going to be enough, but finding another approach has been a struggle.

In an effort to propose a solution, many commenters have started pointing to the lack of a “shared reality” and the influence of media “echo chambers,” suggesting that a common understanding of facts and policy goals is needed to help the country out of its slump. To be sure, these are important considerations—ideally, Americans would be less vulnerable to manipulation, something the country should be working toward. But the idea of a single worldview that everyone shares is both unrealistic and dangerous. Most of the times groups of people have gotten close to such a shared reality, they have used it to propagate destructive ideas.

To find examples, one doesn’t even need to risk running afoul of Godwin’s law, because there are so many to choose from. The revisionist myth of the Lost Cause, for instance, offered a carefully cultivated shared reality that convinced generations of Americans that the Confederate cause was just, heroic, romantic, and had little to do with slavery. It faced down historical evidence with cheap, new statues that appeared to be weighty historical monuments, military bases named after traitors, and, most perniciously, school textbooks. Many people still practice patriotism for a pseudo-nation that barely existed 150 years ago as though they had grown up in it, because, in a way, they did: They grew up in the shared reality that reimagined it.

Rather than a shared worldview, what the United States can aim for is shared principles—some guidance for where it is trying to go as a society. Even this may seem like a stretch in 2020, but fortunately the United States does have a guiding principle that everyone at least pretends to agree with, and it’s not patriotism, which has become so meaningless that it is no longer the last refuge of scoundrels but the first checkbox of the political consultant. Patriotism is the essence of propaganda, a forced affirmation that cannot be pinned down. It is too amorphous to be useful as a path to compromise, or for holding government officials to account.

But there is another principle that is fundamental to U.S. national identity, one that supposedly everyone in public life in the United States should be committed to: democracy.

True, the word has been thrown around as a test of patriotism so often that it has been badly diluted. But that’s all the more reason to reclaim it now. Americans need to be saying without hesitation or qualification that voter suppression is undemocratic, that using disinformation as part of an election campaign is undemocratic. It isn’t enough to lament that those actions raise questions about the state of U.S. democracy, nor that they are the top of a slippery slope toward fascism. They need to be called out as irrefutably undemocratic now.

If that brings to the fore long-standing undemocratic habits, so much the better. Gerrymandering is undemocratic. The District of Columbia not having representation in Congress is undemocratic. Tradition or the difficulty of making changes should no longer be excuses for letting undemocratic practices slide. Americans need to reinstate undemocratic as unacceptable, and that term should be a yardstick for the upcoming election. It needs to be clear that intimidating voters is undemocratic, that interfering in approved voting methods is undemocratic, that staying in office after losing an election is undemocratic.

Calling someone, or a policy, undemocratic will not immediately cause it to melt like a wicked witch doused with water. But it is the first step toward starting to legally incorporate procedures to deal with the kinds of electoral and government malfeasance that the United States has seen over the past four years—crimes that have generated outrage but not much else that could protect the American system.

Is that sad? Sure. Does it mean democracy has failed? Not remotely. It means that the particular configuration of democracy that the United States has developed is (at best) incomplete. It means that the country has learned something about where the weaknesses in its system lie and how to fix them. The American experiment has returned some results, and it’s time to tweak the parameters again.

But in the meantime, for those of us who are not constitutional lawyers, attorneys general, or congresspeople, demanding that the country’s leaders embrace democracy is a start. It will be a move back toward meaning and substance. Calling someone unpatriotic is an attack without meaning, because there is no way to prove love for country, and it’s a dubious concept in any case. But calling someone undemocratic can be tied to specific actions and stated positions, and undemocratic behavior runs contrary to something everyone in the United States is supposed to believe in.

Malka Older is an affiliated research fellow at the Center for the Sociology of Organizations at Sciences Po. She is the author of an acclaimed trilogy of science fiction political thrillers, beginning with Infomocracy, and a new collection of of short fiction and poetry, ...and Other Disasters.

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