Opinion Columns & Blogs

Two books all political partisans should read (yeah, you too)

Davis Merritt
Davis Merritt File photo

Millions of Americans from all segments of the political spectrum are terrified and disillusioned by the fracturing of our civic life; many are pushed to the point of surrender.

“We can no longer talk about politics,” is a common lament within families, between spouses, among old friends. “I can’t watch the news anymore.”

Thus is our democratic republic deprived of its plasma: civil, earnest deliberation about what we should do.

Today’s alienation persists to an extent not seen since the schisms of the 1860s produced, among Americans, our bloodiest war. Alan Abramowitz and Amy Chua want to avert another civic suicide by helping us understand, through two new, separate books, how we slid into such a state and how we might find our way back.

Neither author is a political ideologue. Neither of the books is written in the disputatious language of today’s political literature and neither seeks converts nor assigns blame.

People of all political persuasions — if they but look objectively — will find themselves reflected and acknowledged within the pages. Because our polity is so ill that civil dialogue is foreclosed, perhaps thinking separately about common ideas could be a first step toward healing.

Abramowitz (“The Great Alignment: Race, Party, Transformation and the Rise of Donald Trump”) is an Emory University political scientist and statistician who never met a logistic regression analysis that he didn’t like.

Amy Chua (“Political Tribes: Group Instincts and the Fate of Nations”) is a Yale law professor and author of four previous books, including the popular “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother,” who obviously spends much time contemplating the human condition.

Abramowitz uses the deep and reliable research of the American National Election Study to tease from millions of data points evidence of attitude changes since 2000 that led to “the rise of negative partisanship,” a state in which “the proportion of party supporters who have strongly negative feelings toward the opposing party has risen sharply.”

“We” are always good, “They” are always bad. Attachment to one party has become hatred of the other.

Chua uses history, insight and observational power to identify the same danger point of sharp alienation. Tribalism, including its “We are good, They are bad” reflex, has always been a primary and instinctive form of social organization worldwide, she writes. America resisted the worst tribal impulses for most of its history because of a shared sense of identity — as Americans.

Identity politics has always been part of American politics, but until recently both the right and the left usually “stood for group-transcending values,” Chau writes, “Neither does today.” That’s her version of Abramowitz’s “negative partisanship.”

The political scientist and the philosopher, though starting from different disciplines and habits of mind, arrive at other shared ideas.

▪ Donald Trump did not originate the societal and racial fractures that have grown into the gap that discourages us and paralyzes our governing, but he instinctively, recklessly and relentlessly leveraged them.

▪ Racial resentment, driven by inexorably changing American demographics, hardens the edges of both sides of the partisan divide.

At the end, however, the two bright minds take separate paths.

For humanist Chau, our challenge is recognizing and suppressing the growing threat of tribalism. “ …We all need to elevate ourselves … to see our tribal adversaries as fellow Americans engaged in a common enterprise.”

For Abramowitz, the dour statistician, the outlook is less sanguine. “Polarization and negative partisanship will remain major obstacles. … The Trump years are likely to witness the most intense partisan hostility in modern American history.”

But it’s not the differing conclusions that make these books worth our time. It’s the insights along the way that show each of us how we are, how we fit in and who we could be, if we but choose to look.

Davis Merritt, Wichita journalist and author, can be reached at dmerritt9@cox.net.