Christmas, Political Polarization, and the Breakdown of Civil Discourse

By Peter Finocchio, Contributing Writer

Billions of Christians around the globe gathered to celebrate the arrival of their King and Savior. Unfortunately, an otherwise seemingly benign Christmas message from the Republican National Committee sparked a social media storm when a key phrase about this Christmas heralding “a time to celebrate the good news of a new King” was wildly misconstrued by some on the Left to have been a reference to President-elect Donald Trump. Reaction was swift, with cries of indignation ringing out to accuse the RNC of heresy or monarchism and to demand an apology. It did not take long for the RNC to clarify the obvious: “the new King” in its statement was not Trump, but Christ. Still, one has to wonder why so many jumped so quickly to a conclusion that was so wrong. The whole episode may seem silly and trivial, but it is emblematic of a broader problem in our political culture that all Americans should find deeply troubling.

David French has an excellent piece in the National Review on this Christmas “controversy” that is certainly worth reading in its entirety. French suggests that the liberal backlash to the RNC’s statement is revealing of what left-wing elites really think about conservatives. “Do liberal journalists and pundits really think so little of the RNC that they actually believe they’d call Trump a king?” he asks. “Do they really think they’d compare the president-elect to Jesus?” French contends that the apparent answer in the affirmative to these questions is a big problem. “They’re not even granting the RNC the presumption of rationality,” he goes on. “Indeed, they presume the opposite- that their political opponents are delusional.”

This problem isn’t just limited to how many Democrats view Republicans. One can easily see this scenario playing out in the reverse. Indeed, this plays out constantly in both directions. It is the inevitable product of a total breakdown in respectable civic discourse. A Gallup poll released last month revealed that the percentage of Americans who see our country as fundamentally divided is at a record level. The new data also portrayed great pessimism over whether our new President-elect will be able to heal these divisions. In a pluralistic society, disagreement can be a good thing but sadly, we have lost the ability to see the merits of those with whom we disagree. Many Americans today do not simply see the other party as wrong or misguided, but rather as dangerous, or even evil. Prominent voices in both parties personify this divisiveness from their soap boxes and bully pulpits. How often does a conservative public figure talk about how liberals are destroying America from within? Yet for every right-wing ideologue shouting accusations of treason, there is a prominent leftist accusing conservatives of being hateful and bigoted. How do you reason with someone you believe is trying to destroy America? How do you presume the well intentions of someone you are constantly told is driving an agenda of hate? Words and sentiments like these have no place in our public discourse.

Hyperbolic statements from talk radio hosts or partisan politicians trying to placate their respective party’s base only add fuel to the fire. But they didn’t start the fire and we cannot rely on elites to put the fire out. This responsibility starts with us. It starts with getting out of the partisan bubbles we’ve crafted for ourselves and actually getting to know people who see the world differently than we do. Once we do this, we’ll quickly realize that the people we’ve demonized aren’t so bad after all. Even if we still think their ideas are bad, we’ll at least understand that good people can disagree on public policy. After all, the measure of a person is so much more than the sum of their socioeconomic theories.

David French is right that we have a big problem. The backlash against the RNC’s Christmas statement reveals that some people have become so obsessed with the notion that their political opponents are delusional that it has led them to interpret a benign message in an absurd way. Their failure to grant that those of differing views might also be rational people prevents them from giving the benefit of the doubt. It hinders them from doing anything but reacting with swift, impulsive condemnation. If this sounds familiar it is because this is exactly what is causing the breakdown of civil political dialogue across our country. Those on different sides of any given argument are often unable to communicate because they operate under the assumption that the other person is delusional- or worse. The lesson from the events surrounding the RNC’s 2016 Christmas message is one that all Americans should heed: how we view people changes how we view what they are saying. That means that if we are ever to reclaim a positive political culture, we need to view those with whom we disagree as well-intentioned individuals who are actually capable of possessing a rational thought.