After the Debacle: A Democratic Step Forward

The debacle of January 6, 2021—a mob of rightwing extremists incited by the President to attack the U.S. Capitol—is a raw image of the danger confronting a deeply divided people.  President-elect Biden will have to work hard to keep a coalition together for advancing a bold agenda that is likely to encounter Republican obstructionism. More than civility alone is required to meet the challenge at hand. 

Factionalism, dissension, and polarization to the point of political dysfunction (some say at the risk of disunion) is the disorder we must allay if we hope to secure the future. The election of 2020 left a riven nation in limbo. This is the moment to seek a democratic way forward.

Remedying alienation is not a matter of setting differences aside. It does require abandoning divisive demonizing, however, and fostering a sufficiency of political cohesion to contest differences constructively.

Communication scholar Donald Ellis speaks to this problem in a recent post on civility. Civility is more than good manners, he observes.  Incivility is correlated with polarization, reduced trust in democratic institutions, and a focus on spectacle over problem solving. He offers useful tips on how to “break the cycle of mutual incivility”—how to move beyond stereotypes and partisanship by (1) being more respectful and interested in understanding what one’s opponent believes and why, (2) listening fully and attentively to what one’s opponent says, and (3) asking open-ended questions rather than being confrontational. 

Professor Ellis’s timely advice is fundamental to the ethos of a democratic people and congruent with the theory of deliberative democracy.  Learning and practicing civility, he submits, promotes “reciprocal conversation”—indeed, is foundational for “reflective conversation” and prerequisite to productive deliberation. 

Civility is a solid starting point for building polity. Yet, there are practical limits to consensus as a goal, per se, or even as a vehicle of political action, when consensus is taken to mean solidarity, general agreement, a substantial majority of opinion, or interparty accord. Politics entails concord and discord, especially in a complex, diverse, and pluralistic society.

Beyond consensus and civility, we need to take into consideration contestation and advocacy. There are better and worse acts of advocacy. Political speech is more or less democratic and efficacious depending on how it is practiced. 

President-elect Biden seeks both to heal a wounded polis and to advance a contested agenda. The body politic is deeply divided but also is menaced by economic displacement, racism, violence, pandemic, climate change, and more. Political paralysis in the face of urgent challenges poses a profound threat to the republic and the people. While advancing contested policies will require a sufficient base of public support to enable productive deliberation and positive outcomes, the margin of potential cooperation is slim. 

Biden’s loose coalition is comprised of progressive, moderate, and conservative Democrats vying over different social and economic priorities.[1] Beyond that, Americans overall lean center-right, with 37% identifying as conservative, 35% moderate, and 24% liberal.  Among Republicans, 73% say they are conservative, 21% moderate, and 4% liberal. Among Democrats, 49% say they are liberal, 36% moderate, and 14% conservative.[2] Most who identify as political independents are closely aligned either with Democrats or Republicans; the small fraction of non-partisan independents is less politically engaged and more negatively oriented toward politics than partisan-leaning independents.[3] 

These numbers have remained relatively stable over the last decade or two as political polarization has intensified to the point where over 80% of Republicans and Democrats hold very unfavorable opinions of one another and share no consensus on the nation’s key priorities.[4] They elect members of Congress who reflect and foster this divide. 

“We define ourselves by opposition,” observes David French, writing about the country as a whole from the position of a self-identified political and religious conservative. Being “united by our loathing” reduces us to a state of negative polarization where hate and fear of the other party is greater than liking of one’s own party.[5] 

For French, the solution is to exercise tolerance by returning power to the individual states, protecting freedom of speech, and preserving gun rights. But tolerating rightwing extremism is a hard pill to swallow, especially after four years of Trumpism. Media columnist Margaret Sullivan insists that Trump’s enablers are not correctly identified as conservatives. Referring to them as conservatives is a disservice that normalizes the dangerous edge of their extremism and obscures their intent to subvert democracy. 

“U.S. politics has become a hellscape of intractable polarization,” writes Charlotte Alter, a hellish disorder Biden aims to fix by restoring “the soul of the nation.”[6] The need is acute and the challenge enormous. He is betting that the country is tired of acrimony and that it craves decency, respect, dignity, empathy, honesty, and unity. Difference does not mean division, Biden insists, preferring center-left pragmatism over revolution. 

Success depends on finding common ground, which is why smart money says “bipartisanship will end where Biden’s agenda begins.” Mitigating climate change, overhauling immigration policy, extending healthcare coverage, pursuing racial justice, raising the minimum wage, increasing funding for public education, supporting collective bargaining, and other such initiatives will surely meet with partisan resistance. If his party did not hold a slim majority in the House and tenuous control of the Senate, Biden likely would have trouble getting appointments confirmed, let alone legislation passed, at the start of his presidency. 

Recalcitrance is the political order of the day for Congressional Republicans. The sharp partisan divide is underscored in dueling narratives that reflect the absence even of a common public culture.[7] How Biden and the Democratic majority climbs this steep hill of political advocacy will determine both short-term success and the ability to remain in power long enough to solidify policy initiatives. 

This brings us to a matter of discourse, to reclaiming the discourse of democracy. By discourse I mean something broader but akin to Michel Foucault’s sociological sense of it as the various practices that infuse our world with meaning and set the cultural boundaries for what can or cannot be stated meaningfully on given subjects and issues. Discourse articulates the character of a people and, in this way, communication impacts polity. The democratic prospects of a people hinge, in particular, on the make-up and exercise of their political discourse. Beliefs and attitudes are shaped and reshaped in communication by the terms in use, including words, images, tropes, symbols, gestures, tonality, and more. Priorities and policies are enabled and constrained by discourse. 

The party of rightwing extremism has captured and distorted the discourse of democracy, appropriating it to the ends and means of authoritarianism, where democracy is managed, corporate power unleashed, and the public manipulated so that state and economic forces are conjoined in what Sheldon Wolin calls “inverted totalitarianism.” It is a tendency “away from self-government, the rule of law, egalitarianism, and thoughtful public discussion.”[8] The tendency preceded and morphed into the violence and demagoguery of Trumpism. 

The veneer of democracy simply will not bear the weight of an ambitious agenda to meet intertwined crises of global warming, wealth inequity, and systemic racism. To develop and maintain a sufficient base of public support, policy must conform to democratic values, democratic ends must be advanced by democratic means, and the substance of democracy must conform to the message of democracy. We must learn to speak and think and act within the framework of democratic discourse, a robust discourse that interweaves the values of equality, community, and self-governance with liberty and justice. This is a standard to which politics will hold if there is any chance of redeeming the soul of the nation and sustaining a way forward.

Holding political advocacy to the standard of democratic polity is the work to which the citizenry and its elected representatives must immediately turn.  The outcome of election 2020 is an invitation and opportunity to begin the work, not its conclusion. The country cannot afford to squander this chance to secure its future. Now is the time to remember what democracy means, what it values, and what it comprises in word and deed. It is an opening to respond from a democratic standpoint to the issues and exigencies with which we are confronted. 


January 8, 2021

[1] For an illustration of these tensions, see Michael Lind, “Progressives Are a Minority in America.  To Win, They Need to Compromise,” Guardian, December 19, 2020.

[2] Lydia Saad, “The U.S. Remained Center-Right, Ideologically, in 2019,” Politics, January 9, 2020.

[3] John Laloggia, “Six Facts About U.S. Political Independents,” Fact Tank, May 15, 2019.

[4] Iman Ghosh, “Charts:  America’s Political Divide, 1994-2017,” September 25, 2019.

[5] David French, Divided We Fall:  America’s Secession Threat and How to Restore Our Nation (NY: St. Martin’s, 2020), 2, 84.

[6] Charlotte Alter, “Joe Biden and Kamala Harris, President-Elect and Vice President-Elect of the United States, Time, December 20/28, 2020, 44, 46.

[7] On the left, the story features the decline of white Christian privilege as the source of an outburst of fear, anger, and overt racism.   On the right, the narrative emphasizes the loss of liberty and economic opportunity, the abomination of abortion, and the threat of being disarmed.  French, Divided We Fall, 12-17.

[8] Sheldon S. Wolin, Democracy Incorporated:  Managed Democracy and the Specter of Inverted Totalitarianism (Princeton, NJ:  Princeton University Press, 2008), xxiv.

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