International Policy Digest

Gage Skidmore
Politics /08 Dec 2020
12.08.20

Political Social Distancing: Biden Alone Cannot Unite America

In his victory speech, President-elect Joe Biden promised “a time to heal in America.” He pledged “to be a president who seeks not to divide but unify, who doesn’t see red states and blue states, only sees the United States.” But the American divide is deep. Political “social distancing” has become the new norm. It erodes the core of democracy, which is deliberation–the exchange of arguments between equals to find a consensus and reach a decision.

According to the German philosopher Jürgen Habermas, deliberation is based on a “domination-free discourse” in which the “unforced force of the better argument” prevails. It requires a willingness to listen to others and to be convinced by sound arguments. But more profoundly, it needs a common language. And here is the problem with American democracy. Liberals and conservatives, Democrats and Republicans all speak the same but different language. America is more and more shaped by two different “lifeworlds” that share fewer and fewer common values and norms and less and less mutual understanding and interpretation. As a consequence, Democrats and Republicans do not understand each other.

Democrats and Republicans have different beliefs and opinions on almost every issue, from abortion and gun rights to climate change and social policies. However, different views and opinions are not problematic per se in a democracy. It becomes a problem the more and more societal groups disagree uniformly on almost all political issues. Compared to age, race and ethnicity, religious affiliation, and education, partisanship is the biggest factor that determines voters’ political values. Instead of disagreeing on some issues and agreeing on others, Democrats and Republicans now share precious few common beliefs, ideas, and opinions for which reason social ties erode more and more between them. Furthermore, each group views the other’s policies as actively harmful to the country.

The erosion of social relations is reinforced by a geographical separation. A glance at the Electoral College map gives an incomplete or distorted impression of the American divide. The major division is not between blue states on the coasts and red states in the heartland. It is between rural and urban areas. The election results indicate that this geographical separation deepens. In battleground states such as Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania, traditional Democratic strongholds, Trump could widen his margin in rural areas. Biden did not win back voters in most rural counties. Nevertheless, Biden was able to extend his lead in urban areas and thereby ultimately secure the necessary majority of votes in these battleground states.

The ideological polarization, erosion of social ties, and geographical distance facilitates the animosity and alienation between Democrats and Republicans. Both sides increasingly see each other as closed-minded, unintelligent, and even immoral. They rarely have positive views about each other. Many Americans will not even consider a relationship with a person who voted for the presidential candidate of the other side.

As a result, a political form of “social distancing” can be seen, independent of protective measures in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic. The central problem is not just an ideological polarization, but a social alienation and physical separation along party affiliation. These trends erode slowly but steadily the bond of solidarity. It divides the society into disparate groups that share a common lifeworld less and less. Without that common lifeworld, a society loses the foundation for communication and mutual understanding. Democrats and Republicans cannot even agree on basic facts. Under such circumstances, it becomes more and more difficult to find a consensus.

The media landscape reinforces the process of political social distancing. Many Americans consume only media that confirm their existing opinions. Social media fuels this process, as algorithms provide users with content that is predominantly consistent with their previous attitudes. Americans are only rarely confronted with opposing views. Democrats and Republicans perceive two different realities. Echo chambers and filter bubbles diminish the willingness to listen to others and to be convinced.

Political social distancing deprives politics of the practical ability and legitimacy to halt the division of society–the formation of two lifeworlds. It leads to a divided Congress, where ideological differences between Democratic and Republican members of Congress have been growing for decades. The result is a political gridlock that hinders and prevents structural reforms, for example, to fight the diminishing of the middle class. The consequence is a loss of output legitimacy. The political gridlock also blocks any chance to tackle democratic deficits. And the list of deficits is long: voter suppression, campaign financing, gerrymandering, the Electoral College, the voting rights of the District of Columbia and overseas territories. A reform of democratic institutions could strengthen the input legitimacy and thereby willingness to accept results even if the other side wins.

The record voter turnout seems to contradict a legitimacy deficit of democracy. Over 150 million Americans voted—a record level since 1908. However, the reason for such high voter turnout was not substantial confidence in the integrity of the election. 70 percent of Republicans believe that the election was not free and fair. This should come as no surprise, given that President Trump and his campaign constantly sowed doubt before and after the election. The high voter turnout is rather the result of the fact that voters believe that this time, it really matters who wins the White House.

Contrary to Trump, President Biden will not fuel the division with his rhetoric. He can heal through moral leadership and decency. Biden is known in Washington for reaching across the aisle. But it will be difficult to find bipartisan consensus in a divided Congress. It is difficult to reach consensus when political parties and the electorate share a common lifeworld less and less. How can you communicate and find consensus, when the other side does not understand you? Against the backdrop of the divide in the American lifeworld, we can better understand why Trump’s attacks on the foundations of American democracy have been met with wide acceptance among members of the Republican Party and the electorate.

In the end, political social distancing–ideological polarization combined with social alienation and geographical separation–cannot be overcome by Washington. It needs to change from within the society: grassroots movements from the political middle class. A President Biden can facilitate such civic participation, for example, by encouraging referendums, citizen forums, or citizens’ juries, but it takes the initiative and willingness from within society itself to bridge the divide.