A Shared National Story

America’s extremism problem requires better politics, not just security measures

Pity the maestro in the time of a virus.  Conductors have a hard job getting everyone in the orchestra to play from the same sheet of music in harmony during normal times – Zoom concerts in a pandemic make the task doubly harder.   

U.S. President Joe Biden has multiple orchestras to conduct at the same time – within his own party, in the fraught negotiations with an internally divided Republican Party – and most importantly with the whole country.  

Different sorts of viruses have attacked the health of America’s democracy – disinformation and truth decay and a decades-long extremist echo chamber that has infected mainstream political parties and made the national dialogue more toxic than ever.  Getting even just a handful of people to play from the same sheet of music seems mission impossible most days.

Many Americans breathed a sigh of relief after a shaky political transition that turned violent seemed to have been completed last month.  But the moment of peril is still upon us and a lot can happen in the coming weeks that leads to a further unraveling of America’s democracy.

Last week’s warning from the Department of Homeland Security about the heightened threat from domestic violent extremists was both long overdue and insufficient.  It was overdue after years of neglect during the Trump years, when resources were not properly allocated to address this real and growing threat, but insufficient because the essential task is much bigger than one of the federal government’s largest agencies can handle. 

It turns out that politicizing America’s security and law enforcement institutions is bad for both Democrats and Republicans alike – a weakened public security environment harms all.  America, you know things are getting bad at home when leading columnists start to turn to experts who dealt with counterinsurgencies and civil wars in far-away lands for insight about what to do here. 

On his second full day in office, President Biden announced a comprehensive threat assessment of domestic extremism, another necessary step to deal with the burgeoning toxicity in the security and political climate at home.  The focus on necessary security measures shouldn’t divert from the bigger task, one shared by all.

What needs to change is the broader political environment, not just the laws and the performance of the country’s security institutions.  Easier said than done, but without more of an effort to fix a noxious national debate that leaves too many Americans angry and confused, the country’s democracy will remain wobbly. 

America’s military and law enforcement organizations kept the peace and maintained their neutrality (at least for now), and it is important to root out any signs of extremism or partisanship within these institutions’ ranks.  Maintaining the nonpartisan independence of these organizations is vital for a healthy democracy – as is the constant need for ensuring their highest commitment to professionalism and America’s values.  But legalistic and bureaucratic moves only scratch the surface of a deeper problem – one that won’t be fixed overnight. 

A key ingredient to improving the broader political landscape is to revive a broader spirit of an inclusive nationalism – everyone can do a better job at stepping back from the “us versus them” mentality that has undercut America’s democracy and other open societies around the world.  

These ideas have been swirling around global right wing extremist networks for many years, and they also have some deep roots to ugly parts of America’s own history.  As a result, today’s Republican Party has a tough fight against the extremist voices that have been in their camp for decades – doubly so now that it has a QAnon conspiracy theorist among its ranks in Congress and Donald Trump raised hundreds of millions of dollars since last November’s election. 

A change in the broader environment requires serious work across the ideological and political spectrum to foster better politics.  Extremists fill the gaps left behind by weakened political parties that are seen as out-of-touch and lacking a clear vision for the country.

The long-term challenge is one facing Republicans and Democrats alike – doing more to foster a more inclusive nationalism, as John Halpin wrote in Democracy, “Democratic and Republican leaders who align themselves with dogmatic economic ideologies or unresolvable culture wars fail to serve our country well.”  One of the biggest failures in America’s politics today on the right and the left is the failure of a compelling narrative – a shared story about the country and its core ideals.

The problems of narrow thinking afflict parts of the left, too, as Peter Juul and Ruy Teixeira point out in American Affairs.  They make the case for an approach that “speaks to all Americans as Americans – not as members of finely sliced and microtargeted demographic categories – and engages them in an optimistic and truly inclusive politics of national renewal and reconstruction.” 

We saw glimmers of inclusive nationalism at Biden’s inauguration last month – particularly when three former U.S. presidents came together with a powerful message of unity reminding Americans that they have more in common than what separates them.  But platitudes at national moments are easy. Tougher is staying connected to the bigger picture of a shared common good for the country during the rough and tumble of wrestling with difficult public policy issues – as we are seeing in the current stimulus debate. 

Reviving that sense of a shared national narrative – one that is open, pluralistic, and inclusive – is essential to a well-functioning society.  The historian Yuval Noah Harari argues in his book, Sapiens, “Much of history revolves around this question: how does one convince millions of people to believe particular stories….” Societies need these shared stories to get large numbers of people to cooperate successfully.

Right now, too many Americans feel disconnected from their own communities at a time when the sense of national purpose has eroded.  In a later book, Homo Deus, Harari cautions that “democratic elections usually work only within populations that have some prior common bond, such as shared beliefs or national myths.”   This shared story has frayed in America – as well as other democracies suffering backsliding in basic rights and freedoms.  America survived its last election and political transition, but just barely.  

A new orchestra is assembled – and many of us still aren’t playing from the same sheet of music.   As with any good orchestral performance, a lot depends on the conductor – but all of the musicians have to play their part, too.