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Preserving the Union: Preventing an American Divorce

In his June 8th article for National Review, David French discussed the rise of homogenous enclaves in our country and the part they play in dividing Right from the Left. According to French, we now face something “akin to the beginning stages of a national divorce.” French describes the social and political forces driving America apart as a “combination of negative polarization and a phenomenon Tyler Cowen calls ‘matching.’”

Briefly, negative polarization, as described by French, is the tendency for Americans to associate with “political tribes.” They do this not based on any affinity of ideas, but because of a shared hatred of the opposing point of view. Each tribe views the other as inferior in some meaningful way representative of personal morality.

“Matching” is a way to put these tribal views into practice. People tend to gravitate towards people with similar preferences and opinions as themselves. For this reason, people with opposing views are, rather alarmingly, not communicating with one another, not working with one another and, based off voting patterns, not even living near one another. French’s look at popular TV shows in different parts of the country reveals that people with different political opinions don’t even engage the same culture. A New York Times map of television habits reveals that programs enjoyed by residents of traditionally red states are very different than those enjoyed by residents of blue states.

“Americans have choices,” according to French, “and millions have chosen ideologically closed enclaves.” Needless to say, this is a very dangerous thing for our country. Two segments of American society are growing farther and farther apart, with apathy being interrupted only occasionally by antipathy. There is currently no force strong enough to impede a separation. Our county could collapse and nobody would care enough to bring it back together.

In a way this prospect is far more dangerous than the civil war about which Dennis Prager warned. Once this divorce begins, there is no feasible way to preserve the union. The only way to save our country is to prevent the divorce altogether.

While French recommends federalism as a solution—usually my favorite answer to national issues—in this case it just isn’t enough. French’s solution is to “let California be California and Texas be Texas. De-escalate national politics.” That only works if while Californians are being Californians, they are also being Americans.

To preserve that interstate kinship, action must be taken to stop the advance of political enclaves.

Fortunately, there is one battleground where this goal can advance. The college campus. Conservatives students on campus and groups like College Republicans have the ability to affect change that can actually slow the growth of political tribalism.

Most universities are predominantly populated by liberal students. To quote USMC General Puller when his men were surrounded by enemy forces during the Korean War, “They are in front of us, behind us, and we are flanked on both sides by an enemy that outnumbers us 29:1. They can’t get away from us now!” (The cutoff division of Marines escaped the situation, destroying seven enemy divisions in the process). In a strange way, this quote applies to those conservatives currently surrounded by their liberal peers. They are stuck on the same campus. Whether liberal students like it or not, they can’t get away from conservatives. This puts conservatives in a unique position to act in a way that creates an environment where disagreement does not lead to disassociation.

College campuses can also create a more cohesive America as they are where most people form their political identity. If conservative students can show their liberal peers that conservatism isn’t some evil ideology bent on oppressing the poor, women, and minorities, then maybe liberals will find their enclaves less necessary. The liberals that genuinely hate conservatives do so because they believe conservatives are driven by the same perverse identity motives as they are. When a conservative does not want federal funding for abortion, it must be because he hates women—women being a distinct political class in the Leftist ideology. If conservatives can show liberals at this early stage of political development that their motives are different from liberal ones, that conservatives are also driven by a desire to improve peoples lives, then perhaps American liberals may find conversation with conservatives tolerable.

Given the opportunity for change presented at universities, conservative students and organizations must act as the vehicles for that change. College Republican chapters—and other equivalent organizations—must take the leading role (Disclaimer: I write this as president of Villanova University College Republicans). CR chapters must encourage engagement with liberal students on campus. They must not let liberals hide in their enclaves. Chapters should encourage open and public debates against their College Democrat rivals. They should encourage their members not to be as insulated as their Leftist peers and to befriend liberals when appropriate (or at the very least not to make politics the primary factor in determining friendships).

The effects of such actions could be tangible in the long-run. Conservative minded student groups actively engaging their liberal classmates could mean that down the road situations like the one described by French no longer occur, where:

“in the midst of a debate over juvenile justice, a city council member invoked his ‘Republican friend’ as a symbol of the broad-based agreement that incarceration policies need to change. One of his colleagues, Kshama Sawant, snapped back with the proud declaration that she didn’t have any Republican friends. The crowd cheered.”
If there is an expanded interaction between conservatives and liberals, then it may be possible classify the event described above as an aberration, not indicative of the prevailing trend in American politics.

Writing this, I am entirely aware that this argument sounds like the sort of wishful thinking of which conservatives so often accuse liberals. I don’t mean to suggest that communication with liberals will lead to both sides suddenly hugging each other as friends. I would suggest, however, that it may lead to a future where liberals look at conservatives and do not see people with insurmountable differences. I would hope that this would create a future where both sides see that the United States is better off when school-children in California and Texas pledge allegiance to the same flag every morning.

While Mr. French and I would probable agree that a great many problems in the United States can be solved by embracing the federalist ideology upon which this country was founded, in this instance, it is insufficient to heal the growing divide. There needs to be an active effort to build unity in the United States and to fight the culture of political tribalism. When conservatives and liberals don’t speak to each other, don’t watch the same television shows, don’t live near each other, they no longer live in the same country. To lose this great nation to quiet apathy would be the greatest tragedy in human history.

Ronald Reagan once said “If we love our country, we should also love our countrymen.” If we do not embrace our countrymen today, we stand to lose our country tomorrow.

Written by Frank J. Connor for Western Free Press ~ June 13, 2017.

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