By Payam Zamani
When the partisan divide gets too deep, when everyone feels forced to pick a side, we run the risk of destabilizing our democracy – and ultimately causing its collapse.
If you’re an American, you might be thinking “No way! Our institutions are too strong! They’ve survived deeply partisan battles before.”
That’s partially true – but history shows even strong institutions can falter and fail. In the U.S, we have a republic based primarily on James Madison’s concept of compromise. That means our political system with three branches of government only works when politicians can find ways to consult and compromise with each other in order to get anything done.
Lately, though, with different branches of government primarily controlled by one party and resolutely hated and opposed by the other one, we rarely see compromise on any issue. Add political polarization to that mix, where two sides harden their positions in total opposition, and you get a recipe for disaster.
Political scientists call this phenomenon “negative partisanship” – the tendency to support one party not because you agree with its philosophy, but because the other party’s positions, policies, or people absolutely repulse you. Does that sound familiar?
The embarrassing U.S. presidential debate on September 29thillustrated the concept of negative partisanship perfectly. It revealed the pathology inherent in hyper-partisanship, and its power to pit one faction against another until nothing but the total destruction of the other faction will satisfy its partisans.
As a nation, the United States of America now has to deal with the deeply disunifying effects of negative partisanship while simultaneously attempting to address a host of absolutely crucial issues – the deadly COVID-19 pandemic, systemic racism, economic decline and the widening gap between the rich and poor, climate change, and a Supreme Court nomination process all driving us to pick one side over the other.
So perhaps we can each take this time – right before a profoundly polarizing election – to fully examine why we need a new spirit of nonpartisanship to save the best of America. No new election can solve the polarization – only a new mindset can.
When I first came to the United States as a 16-year-old refugee, I had no previous understanding of the Republican and Democratic parties, or even the country’s political structure. While attending high school, though, I quickly began to understand that the majority party wields the most power to impact our civic and economic lives and influence culture. Unlike multi-party parliamentary systems where compromise rules, our American democracy in the modern era has made compromise a fatal flaw for politicians and even for entire ideologies. Even attempting to find the middle ground of compromise dooms policymakers from either side, who are then seen as traitors by their constituencies.
That distaste for compromise and consultative balance has managed to trickle down to most Americans, unfortunately. Whether red or blue, a person choosing to fall fully in line with a political party says something about their values and how they view the world. In many ways, partisan politics have replaced religion, spirituality, and community at the center of our lives. As humans, we crave a sense of belonging, but if we shackle our entire identities to one political party and its ideology, we have chosen the wrong ways to discover how we engage and who we engage with and what makes another human being worthy.
I’m a member of the Baha'i Faith, which encourages each person to examine every religion and focus on their commonalities rather than their differences. While religions do differ, Baha’is believe that at their core they all have shared similarities and principles. Many religions have entered the world born out of places of conflict and harsh conditions, springing forth like a beautiful flower in contrast to their surroundings.
The Baha’i Faith was founded in Iran in 1844, but Baha’is regard the United States as the administrative cradle of their Faith. Like the U.S, the leadership of Baha'i communities everywhere emerges from a purely democratic process – Baha’is freely elect their leadership, but without partisanship, campaigning or rancor. Perhaps that’s why Baha’is view the United States as having a spiritual destiny – that the American democracy has a large role to play in ushering in a new age of oneness, uniting all peoples of the world. The Baha'i teachings say that:
This revered American nation presents evidences of greatness and worth. It is my hope that this just government will stand for peace so that warfare may be abolished throughout the world and the standards of national unity and reconciliation are upraised. This is the greatest attainment of the world of humanity. This American nation is equipped and empowered to accomplish that which will adorn the pages of history, to become the envy of the world and be blest in the East and the West for the triumph of its democracy.
Abdu'l-Baha, The Promulgation of Universal Peace, p. 103.
If the United States has a spiritual destiny, it still needs to prepare itself for taking on that global mantle. One of the primary orders of business in that transformation calls for personal, not just national change. To assert American leadership in the world, we must change our hearts.
Rather than blaming those in power for the negative partisanship we now experience – where every issue has a clear-cut divide and cooperation is viewed as weakness – we have to look inside ourselves. We empower our leaders, and our consent allows them to govern. In pitting political parties against each other so viciously, we must recognize that we have devalued our best characteristics: the ability to love, to reason, to communicate, to respect the views of others. No democracy can thrive without those individual qualities in its citizens.
In one sense, our hyper-polarized, negative partisan politics only reflect the inner condition of the country. We cannot assume that if leadership changes, things will improve amongst the governed. Partisan politics are a symptom, not the core problem.
The problem is that our hearts are not in the right place. As long as we do not treat others as noble beings who deserve to be heard and respected; as long as we view our brothers and sisters in the human family as enemies, we cannot possibly maintain a civil society.
In a conflicted country, where partisan hatred has reached new heights, what does leadership look like? What forces do we see in a society that will improve what we saw during the first presidential debate of 2020? None. If the United States represented a stock on Wall Street, the debate convinced me that I should sell the stock.
The disrespect, the partisan battles, the divisive rhetoric, and the nasty attack ads do not work. They may get candidates elected in the short term, but in the process, they divide us and make it much more difficult to actually govern when the campaign is over. You cannot talk to the other half of the country in that extremely negative manner and expect to break barriers. This archaic way of governing makes for terrible marketing, too.
If you live your life believing that the other side of the debate is evil, you will fail in the long run. On the other hand, if you attract people with loving, open language and a willingness to build community, you may not succeed immediately, but you will succeed in the long run.
Throughout human history, we’ve tried these divisive ways, and they have not led us to a better life. Sure, we’re more advanced materially and technologically, but we still have a great deal of collective spiritual growth awaiting us.
Let me make it clear, though – I am not disinterested in the political process. I have convictions and I vote according to who I believe will get results based on those convictions. I just do not think identifying with a political party is anything but disunifying. Few selfless servants of humanity exist in either party’s leadership: as our partisan system currently exists, it rewards the power-hungry, the ones who relish the roles they play, and the titles they receive.
So the old world order smells bad these days. We can say we tried it and it didn't work. In fact, as many people can now see, all of it seems unsustainable. Partisan politics have proven that they’re not just unpleasant and malodorous - they’re actually dangerous. When half of the country’s citizens view the other half as a serious threat – as their actual enemies – it will ultimately result in the demise of our democracy. How? At some point, one side will wind up supporting authoritarian leadership to maintain power, effectively demolishing our beloved democratic institutions.
Our society cannot continue to function while it constantly pits Republicans against Democrats, one race against another, rich against poor, rural against urban. We need collective goals to make life better for all of us. We need a new consciousness of our interdependence, our reliance on one another, our essential unity. Everyone needs to understand that my well-being is closely tied to your well-being.
This is not just an American problem, either. America’s disunity emboldens those who wish to do harm. Long considered a beacon of democracy, freedom, the rule of law, and human rights, American democratic values have influenced all of humanity. If the United States is distracted, bad actors in the world will take the opportunity to commit human rights atrocities, because they feel we aren’t watching.
The Universal House of Justice, the democratically-elected global leadership body of the world’s Baha’is, summarized it this way:
Humanity is gripped by a crisis of identity, as various peoples and groups struggle to define themselves, their place in the world, and how they should act. Without a vision of shared identity and common purpose, they fall into competing ideologies and power struggles. Seemingly countless permutations of “us” and “them” define group identities ever more narrowly and in contrast to one another. Over time, this splintering into divergent interest groups has weakened the cohesion of society itself. Rival conceptions about the primacy of a particular people are peddled to the exclusion of the truth that humanity is on a common journey in which all are protagonists. Consider how radically different such a fragmented conception of human identity is from the one that follows from a recognition of the oneness of humanity. In this perspective, the diversity that characterizes the human family, far from contradicting its oneness, endows it with richness. Unity, in its Baha'i expression, contains the essential concept of diversity, distinguishing it from uniformity. It is through love for all people, and by subordinating lesser loyalties to the best interests of humankind, that the unity of the world can be realized and the infinite expressions of human diversity find their highest fulfillment.
I don’t know if we’ll see an end to negative partisanship any time soon, but it has badly upset the equilibrium of the world during my lifetime. If we can all find ways to seek a higher and more noble identity than the ones political partisanship so falsely offers, perhaps we can save and sustain the American experiment. If not, God help us.