On an early January afternoon one year ago, yours truly was easing into retirement, still lounging in pajamas, sipping coffee after sleeping in late, and turning on the television for the ceremonial counting of electoral votes to certify the results of the 2020 presidential election.
I never changed out of those PJs that day as I watched Jan. 6, 2021, unspool live, in living color. What began as a seemingly calm march on the U.S. Capitol by thousands stating their displeasure at the results of November’s vote exploded into a violent breach of one of our nation’s most treasured democratic (that’s with a lowercase ‘d’) symbols.
Most Americans were transfixed by the day’s coverage of the assault on the time-honored tradition of a peaceful transfer of power. After all, attempted insurrections may be commonplace in places often derided as “banana republics” or “something-hole” countries, but surely not in the birthplace of democracy, the self-proclaimed greatest country on the planet.
I’m not here to debate who’s to blame for the fiasco that unfolded that somber day, nor to argue the merits of “The Big Lie” versus “Stop the Steal.”
I’ll leave that to the pundits on the opinion page and the talking heads at CNN and Fox. I will say to those who compared the events to “a normal tourist visit” by “people in an orderly fashion staying between the stanchions and ropes, taking videos and pictures” – the last time I visited Washington, I did not witness anyone breaking windows of a federal building, hitting a police officer in the head with a fire extinguisher, vandalizing the office of the speaker of the house, or issuing calls to hang the vice president.
I’d sure hate to see those folks’ notion of a family trip to Dollywood.
Rather, I’m here to contemplate the question of “how did we get here?” How did a country once unified in patriotic solidarity by the terror attacks of 2001 become so splintered 20 years later?
For help, I turned to Western Carolina University political science professor Chris Cooper, who confirmed we are living in the most polarized times, politically speaking, in our history – and it’s not even close.
“You could certainly make a case that the Civil War Era and Reconstruction were more polarized, but that’s about it,” Cooper said. “This conclusion isn’t just based on my own sense of reality, but also based on voting patterns in Congress, public opinion data and about any other systematic look at polarization that’s available.”
Blame it on “the natural and unfortunate extension of the two-party system,” Cooper said. “In the 1940 and 1950s, ideology (whether you are a liberal or a conservative) was not aligned with your partisanship (whether you are a Democrat or a Republican).
Over time, we have moved toward more and more alignment of these concepts,” he said. “Today, good luck finding a conservative Democrat or a liberal Republican – you’d have an easier time finding a zebra in Haywood County.”
On top of our two major political parties now having nothing in common comes the creature named social media, which Cooper says has spawned “an environment that invites polarization and minimizes the opportunities for civil discussion, leading to the mess we have today.”
I think Chris is spot on. Social media allows us to hide behind a virtual veil of online anonymity and emboldens us to say things to others we would never say face-to-face. It leads us to vilify those who hold opposing viewpoints and demonize the other side, all from within the comfort of our own echo chamber of likemindedness.
“Social media is the accelerant that brought the fire to a full blaze,” Cooper said. “Study after study shows that people do not use social media to interact with other groups, but rather to preach to the choir – to interact with people who are like themselves. That has further siloed an already soiled populace.”
Does this mean democracy as we know it is doomed? “I don’t think we are doomed, but I do think we can see doomed from where we are sitting,” Cooper said. “We are at the moment where we need to attempt to arrest the polarization that completely defines our politics today. We need to think hard about our institutions, both social and political, and aid the ones that help us break down silos.”
Put another way, those on the left should remember that not all Republicans are environment-destroying homophobic fascists who care only about the all-mighty dollar and those on the right should consider that not all Democrats are liberal elite commie-pinkos who want to outlaw hunting.
So, let’s make a resolution for 2022 to put the “civil” back into our “civil discourse.” Our democracy is counting on us.
Bill Studenc, who began his career in journalism and communications at The Mountaineer in 1983, retired in January 2021 as chief communications officer at Western Carolina University. He now writes about life in the mountains of Western North Carolina.