Donald J. Trump will be the 45th president of the United States. He was elected in perhaps the most polarized election of the last 100 years. We have, more and more, two cultural-political tribes in the United States. And the red tribe’s hatred for the blue tribe beat the blue tribe’s hatred of the red tribe. On social media, and in the press, many people grasp the consequences of this division. Trump is what happens in a country where people so despise one another’s politics that they will either elect a man who is manifestly unqualified or insult and despise everyone who voted for him. If we hope to move forward, it would be wonderful if we could depolarize and compromise on pressing issues. But sentiment is not enough. Healing requires political decentralization.
Polarization Isn’t Going Away
While researching for my forthcoming book, Must Politics Be War?, I’ve been reading a lot of literature on political polarization. One important question is whether the increase in party polarization over the last fifty years is the cause or the effect of polarization among the public. A second important question is whether the public is polarized, or whether party polarization simply makes it appear that way.
In his new book, Polarized, political scientist James Campbell develops a theory of revealed polarization which holds that the American electorate is highly polarized and was not always so (53). Polarization may have increased recently, but Americans became highly polarized in the mid to late 1960s. The parties began to polarize in the late 1970s to early 1990s and it has only gotten worse, but they are merely coming to reflect long-existing divisions among the general public.
If Campbell is right, Americans disagree with each other a lot and have for fifty years. Our disagreements are long-standing and they aren’t going away. And since we disagree, and suffer from in-group bias, our tendency will be to see those who disagree as alien and different and insist that they have nasty motives and suffer severe cognitive deficits. Of course, this perception is partly driven by the fact that many red tribers and blue tribes have nasty motives and grave cognitive deficits when it comes to political matters. But complaining about that isn’t getting us anywhere either.
In my book, I argue that our deep disagreements about the good and justice are often reasonable, and are likely to endure. In light of that, I argue that we can establish a morally valuable kind of social trust across our ideological differences through several institutional reforms, and most of them involve the decentralization of power. Our polarization is socially destructive because we insist on making decisions collectively when we can’t even begin to agree on what the collective decision should be.
Decentralization Through Freedom of Association
I argue that freedom of association is absolutely critical to sustaining relations of social trust across difference, even if it allows people to retreat further into their echo chambers. This is because our attempts to control each others’ forms of association are a source of severe conflict. Attempts to ban same-sex marriage have created huge ill-will, as have attempts to compel religious organizations to recognize same-sex marriage. Attempts to force religious organizations to provide contraception has helped to make religious liberty, once a widely affirmed liberty even twenty years ago, into a partisan issue. I fully expect universities to come under renewed scrutiny under a Trump administration, and I fully expect universities to continue to exclude diverse viewpoints from campus, and to stigmatize conservative and religious organizations on campus.*
Freedom of association allows people with deeply divergent values live out their conceptions of the good and justice in peace with one another. Attempts to restrict this liberty create division and distrust. If we decentralize more power to associations, we can reap the benefits of social peace.
Decentralization Through Federalism
I also argue that federalism is a critical mechanism for reducing division. In some parts of the country, the red tribe and the blue tribe live in close proximity. But in some states, one tribe is dominant. It is better, on balance, to let each tribe dominate in those locales rather than trying to defeat one another at the national level. Healthcare policy has proven incredibly divisive, even hateful. Education policy creates increasing division. Drug policy has been a disaster. If we make decisions at the state or local level, we will have more flexibility in figuring out how each tribe wants to govern itself, such that they will have less of a stake in trying to govern and control the other tribe.
That’s not to say that we should do nothing federally. Foreign policy is invariably national, and racial policy should remain national. But we can do much more at the state and local level. I argue this would help depolarize us without eliminating our ongoing disagreements.
Potential for Abuse
Of course, both freedom of association and federalism can be abused. As Jacob Levy has reminded us, decentralization can make us vulnerable to bigotry and local tyranny. Yet we can nonetheless err too much in the centralist direction. I think it’s clear that we have swung too far in the centralist direction. Presidents have so much power that the red tribe and the blue tribe should fear government by the other.
But if we are prepared to give up some of our power over one another, we can live together better. We will, of course, still have our disagreements. But freedom of movement between different communities would allow people to self-sort and form communities with the like-minded without having to despise and rage against their red or blue overlords.
Centuries ago, we had similar fights about religious establishment. Protestants and Catholics feared that the other group endangered the eternal salvation of millions. And yet, after lots of awful conflict, they figured out a tolerant solution that decentralized religious establishment. Neither side liked the solution at first. But over the centuries, both came to accept and cherish their religious freedom. But if we are willing to trust one another enough to decentralize power, we don’t have to agree about how to live; we need merely agree about the level at which collective decisions must be made. That agreement is surely more practical and moral than what we’ve been doing for the last few decades.
We can heal, but to do so, we must decentralize power. To live together, we must do less together.
*I am not arguing that governments should restrict universities’ right to exclude those who disagree with their values. That’s part of their freedom of association. But I also think that universities should cut it out.