WEDNESDAY’s shooting at a congressional baseball practice was a ghastly example of the political polarisation that is ripping this country apart.
Political scientists have shown that Congress is more divided than at any time since the end of Reconstruction. I am struck, not simply, by the depth of partisanship these days, but increasingly also by its nature. People on the other side of the divide are not just wrong and to be argued with. They are immoral and must be muzzled or punished.
This is not about policy. The chasm between left and right during much of the Cold War was far wider than it is today on certain issues. Many on the left wanted to nationalise or substantially regulate whole industries; on the right, they openly advocated a total rollback of the New Deal. Compared with that, today’s economic divisions feel relatively small.
Partisanship today is more about identity. Scholars Ronald Inglehart and Pippa Norris have argued that in the last few decades, people began to define themselves politically less by traditional economic issues than by identity — gender, race, ethnicity and sexual orientation.
I would add to this mix social class, something rarely spoken of in America, but a powerful determinant of how we see ourselves. The 2016 election had a lot to do with social class, with non-college-educated rural voters reacting against a professional, urban elite.
The dangerous aspect of this new form of politics is that identity does not lend itself easily to compromise. When the core divide was economic, you could always split the difference. If one side wanted to spend US$100 billion (RM427 billion) and the other wanted to spend zero, there was a number in between. The same is true with tax cuts or welfare policy. But, if the core issues are about identity, culture and religion (think of abortion, gay rights, Confederate monuments, immigration and official languages) then compromise seems immoral. American politics is becoming more like Middle Eastern politics, where there is no middle ground between being Sunni and Shia.
I have seen this shift in the reactions to my own writing and, later, my television show. When I started writing columns about two decades ago, the disagreements were often scathing but almost always about the substance of the issue. Increasingly there is little discussion about the substance, mostly ad hominem attacks, often involving my race, religion or ethnicity.
Today, everything becomes fodder for partisanship. Consider the now-famous production of the Public Theater’s Julius Caesar in Central Park, in which Caesar resembles President Donald Trump. Conservatives have pilloried the play, raising outrage among people who have never seen it, claiming that it glorifies the assassination of a president and seeking to defund the production.
Since I tweeted a line praising the production, I’ve received a barrage of attacks, many of them quite nasty. In 2012, a production of the same play had an Obama-like Caesar being murdered nightly and no one seemed to have complained.
In fact, the central message of Julius Caesar is that the assassination was a disaster, leading to civil war, anarchy and the fall of the Roman republic. The assassins are defeated and humiliated and, wracked with guilt, die horrible deaths. If that wasn’t clear enough, the play’s director, Oskar Eustis, has explained the message he intended to convey: “Julius Caesar can be read as a warning parable to those who try to fight for democracy by undemocratic means.”
Political theatre is as old as human civilisation. A sophisticated play by Shakespeare — that actually presents Caesar (Trump) in a mixed, somewhat favourable light — is something to be discussed, not censored, and certainly not to be blamed for the actions of a single deranged shooter.
I recently gave a speech at Bucknell University, in which I criticised America’s mostly liberal colleges for silencing views they deem offensive, arguing that it was bad for the students and the country. The same holds for conservatives who try to mount campaigns to defund art that they deem offensive.
Do conservatives now want Central Park to be their own special safe space? I, for one, will keep arguing that liberals and conservatives should open themselves to all kinds of opinions and ideas that differ from their own. Instead of trying to silence, excommunicate and punish, let’s look at the other side and try to listen, engage and, when we must, disagree.
Fareed Zakaria is an American journalist and author. He is the host of CNN's ‘Fareed Zakaria GPS’ and writes a weekly column for ‘The Washington Post’. He can be reached via firstname.lastname@example.org