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In a time of civic discord, remember ‘we are not enemies’

Patrick Boyle, Senior Staff Writer
October 19, 2021

Distinguished columnist George Will, PhD, says that the causes of today’s heated discourse run deep and sees challenges to restoring civility in debates about critical issues.

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George Will delivers the baccalaureate commencement address at Princeton University in 2019.
George Will delivers the baccalaureate address at Princeton University in 2019.
Credit: Denise Applewhite, courtesy of Princeton University Office of Communications

George Will wishes everybody would calm down.

“Deep breaths,” the Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist envisions a president advising the nation. Will summons the healing words of President Abraham Lincoln as he tried to stave off the Civil War: “We are not enemies; we must not be enemies.”

That is the tone the United States needs from leaders today to lower the temperature of our cultural and political conversations, Will says.

Yet words alone will not suffice, he adds, because the heated discourse arises from a mix of forces the nation has not grappled with before. For starters, significant cultural and demographic shifts have left many people feeling like “they’re losing the country as they understood it.” On top of that, modern communication platforms “give velocity to animosities” rather than to discussions about “ideas that have consequences.”

These and other factors confound the remedies that have brought thoughtful resolutions to civic conflicts before, says Will, who has a PhD in political science. “The stakes are high,” he wrote in his latest collection of columns, American Happiness and Discontents, which was released in September.

On Nov. 9, Will joins a plenary session at the AAMC’s annual meeting, Learn Serve Lead 2021: The Virtual Experience, focused on whether the country can return to a time of civil discourse. He recently shared some of his thoughts in a conversation with AAMCNews.

The conversation has been edited for brevity and clarity.

In the introduction to American Happiness and Discontents, you wrote, “One reason the temperature of the nation’s discourse is high is that the stakes are high. Today’s fights are not optional, and they are worth winning.” Why do you feel that the stakes are especially high now?

There are two reasons. First, we’re really arguing about the extent to which we want to have a government-centered society or a society in which markets allocate wealth and opportunity. To the extent that government elbows aside the market in the allocation of wealth and opportunity, the stakes of politics become ever higher — and distributional conflicts, carried out through politics, become inevitable.

Another reason is [something that] began in earnest with the Biden administration and its emphasis on what’s called equity. The point of equity is to displace equality of opportunity as the American aspiration, and to do so by saying that, in our society, disparate outcomes — in education, wealth, etcetera — are presumptively the result of systemic racism. Equity is not equality of opportunity; it’s equality of outcome.

If you take these two propositions — about a government-centered society and the question of equity — you have an enormous increase in the stakes of politics. And, not surprisingly, more political heat.

Even people who haven’t been interested in politics before are heated up by politics today. People on both sides feel that politics is affecting them in a very personal way.

Yes. A lot of people feel like they’re losing the country as they understood it. This has to do with cultural questions — same-sex marriage, etcetera — and the changing demographic composition of the population.

So what do we do? You wrote last year that “the nation’s downward spiral into acrimony and sporadic anarchy has had many causes” and that “the measures necessary for restoration of national equilibrium are many.” What are the necessary measures?

The main problem here — what makes the whole mess so intractable — is that measures are hard to conceive that would ameliorate some of our discontents. What today can you propose in the way of legislation that would assuage the grievances of Trump voters?

You go back to the Civil Rights Act of 1964; the next year, the Voting Rights Act. Those were specific measures designed to make specific changes that would alter the way people experience American life — big deals. I don’t know how you address the grievances that the Trump voters have in the way that we addressed the concrete, visible grievances that African Americans had when they couldn’t vote or go to a restaurant.

The core Trump voter feels that the country has been transformed — and that he [the voter] is despised by people to whom life has been more generous. I don’t know what you do when people feel condescended to. You can’t pass a law saying, “There shall be no condescending.”

Some historians have reassured us with a version of, “We’ve been here before.” They say our institutions and systems were built to absorb and resolve this kind of civic strife. Do you share that optimism?

We’ve had one crisis that the institutions created by the Constitution could not cope with: a civil war. Everything else we’ve figured out.

In the 1790s, something emerged that the framers of the Constitution neither desired nor anticipated in 1787 — a [political] party system. In the 1790s, Americans began to work out the ethics of partisanship: What kind of rhetoric is acceptable? What does it mean to be the loyal opposition?

There were some stumbles along the way. But back then, we were a young country, and we were just figuring out the ethics of democracy. We’ve been at this for 230 years now, and there’s a feeling of being back at square one.

One thing that feels unprecedented to a lot of people is a severe tribalism among groups of Americans, which you allude to in the new book: “Too many people think and act as tribes and define their happiness as some other tribe’s unhappiness.” How do we address that, either institutionally or individually? If I’m hearing you correctly, we don’t know yet.

I don’t think we do. The Trump phenomenon shows, dramatically and unsettlingly, how one vivid personality, armed with modern methods of communication —Twitter, social media, television, all the rest — and without a civic conscience, can change the tone of the country. That’s the bad news. The good news is, why can’t someone else change the tone of the country back in a better direction, through personality? Not a lurid personality like Mr. Trump’s, but a kind of calm, low-key, affable personality.

Toward the end of Lincoln’s first inaugural address — this was delivered after seven states had already seceded — he said, “We are not enemies; we must not be enemies.” If Lincoln could say that to the country when there were guns practically visible on the other side of the Potomac, surely someone — I’m not holding out for another Lincoln — can come along and say, “My gosh, everybody. Deep breaths. ‘We are not enemies; we must not be enemies.’”

Those people who stormed the Capitol are not themselves that alarming. There are 331 million people in this country and the fact that 5,000 of them are stark raving mad and showed up at the Capitol shouldn’t shake one’s view of the world. But what does shake one’s view is the tendency of scores of millions of people to say, “Well, they’ve got a point. My enemy’s enemy is my friend.” That’s what’s disturbing.

You wrote of one way to get back toward civil discourse: “What we more urgently need is attention paid to the ideas that have consequences as presidents come and go.” But in the same piece you wrote, “The velocity imparted by new media somehow is an in­centive for intemperate discourse.” How do we get people to pay attention to ideas that have consequences, considering your observations about new media?

Speech and the dissemination of speech used to be expensive. Now it’s free. Well, it hasn’t turned out to be Utopia, “Let’s all gather around the campfire of the internet and talk to each other.” It’s given free rein to human nature, unmediated and unmitigated — and human nature’s not always pretty.

The problem is that Twitter does not give velocity to ideas. It gives velocity to passions, to animosities, to vituperation, to vitriol. Whatever you can do in however many characters — I’ve never tweeted, so I don’t know — however many characters it is, it’s not enough for even the Gettysburg address, which was about 250 words.

I’m not hearing a whole lot of hope.

You want hope? I’ll take a stab. One reason for hope is the human capacity for boredom. I don’t know if trout get bored. People get bored. Donald Trump’s a bore. He’s an entertainer and we’ve seen his act and it’s not going to change. Trump rallies are in arenas full of people with two attributes: They’re furious and they’re having fun. It’s a solidarity of shared animosities.

There’s a kind of fever out there. It is in the nature of fevers that they kill their host or they burn out. My hunch is that this bore is going to burn out, to produce a kind of fatigue. This is strenuous, being angry all the time.

There are 331 million people in this country. At any given moment, 325 million of them are not listening to talk radio, they’re not listening to cable television. They’re raising children, cleaning the gutters, fixing the screen door, and getting on with life.

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