by Signe Janoska-Bedi
Clashes in Charlottesville, Virginia, this past summer indicated a deep discord in American social identity but provided few immediate clues as to a solution. More specifically, the riots showed Americans that our increasingly inclusive society – certainly not yet inclusive enough – is under threat. Today’s level of political and social polarization reminds us of the Antebellum South, in context if not intensity.
The driving force for these clashes has always been the same: an emergent group threatens the established coalition of interests, who work tirelessly to suppress them through skillful use of entrenched institutional power.
Entrenched interests are tricking the rest into a compact. The source of the discord is economic, couched in terms of race to rally those who are otherwise uninterested around a common cause. Multi-generational economic discontent is manifest in resentment and feelings of racial superiority, even if the fundamental issue is far more complex than just race. Lyndon Johnson said it best: “If you can convince the lowest white man he’s better than the best colored man, he won’t notice you’re picking his pocket. Hell, give him somebody to look down on, and he’ll empty his pockets for you.”
This resentment, and government’s failure to pass good policy, has empowered political fringe groups that want to de-legitimize our federal institutions. And since the political fringe makes up a minority of Americans but a majority of the politically-engaged, minor increases to their numbers result in significant increases to their impact on public policy.
How do we overcome this tendency toward tribalism and scapegoating? The answer: through a unifying narrative of public service, reminiscent of the Second World War, when America was united within and abroad around a common goal. Before we can solve inequity in our public policy, we must first build a culture of cooperation amongst ourselves. A national program for service would provide the tools for consensus-building. I do not believe that a shock is necessary before any such program becomes politically feasible. Instead, American youth must push forward their vision for a unifying narrative.
On the issue of narrative, the United States can learn from Europe, where similar polarization has weakened democratic institutions and hampered public policy. Nonetheless, European students – like those in European Horizons – have worked tirelessly to construct a story for a unified Europe. American students must follow suit, as tomorrow’s policymakers will implement the political innovations we need today. Since disagreement over public policy is greater than ever, the narrative must grow to meet the challenge. To fix the divide, first we all must serve.
Signe Janoska-Bedi studies international policy at the University of Wisconsin-Madison La Follette School of Public Affairs. He serves as a teaching assistant in the University of Wisconsin Department of Political Science. He is interested in public policy and transatlantic relations.