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Opinion Want less rancid politics? Think more about family and community.

July 16, 2023

Political polarization is not our country’s most important problem. I’d rank right-wing extremism ahead of it. But extremism and polarization go hand in hand. Democracy is challenged when Americans have trouble understanding and communicating with each other.

The untoward meanness out there (see: any social media site) and the substitution of personal invective for argument are not just enemies of reasoned debate. They’re also barriers to problem-solving. Important public issues, notably gun safety and immigration, have become so ideologically charged that reaching consensus on sensible action has become close to impossible.

Good-hearted folks who want us to be less polarized often recommend what back in the day we called encounter groups: Bring together people with vastly different political views, and they will eventually discover their common humanity.

Lord knows, I’m for anything that might help us hate each other a little less, but political polarization requires political solutions. Some of them have to do with fixes to the electoral system, including an end to gerrymandering and the introduction of ranked-choice voting, which works against extremist candidates. But technical repairs aren’t enough. The way forward also requires citizens and political leaders alike to challenge the weaponization of causes that ought to be unifying.

We should start with Americans’ shared concerns about family and community.

Family? Really? It’s true that conservatives have often wielded the word “family” against liberals — and especially against members of the LGBTQ+ community. But consider the growth in support for same-sex marriage — now at 71 percent of all Americans, a recent Gallup survey found, including 49 percent of Republicans. When Gallup first started polling on this subject, in 1996, just 27 percent of Americans thought same-sex marriages should be legal.

On few issues has there been such a profound change of heart, although last month’s Supreme Court decision protecting some businesses from being required to provide services to same-sex couples points to the long half-life of entrenched cultural and moral conflicts.

A fear of reinforcing right-wing talking points in such controversies can make liberals and progressives wary of saying what most of them believe: that the well-being of children is closely tied to the health of families. They should drop their hesitancy and instead remind their conservative friends that families come in many varieties and that public policy affects family well-being.

There is widespread support for affordable child care, elder care, expanded pre-K programs and economic support for low-income families with kids. Should these family-supportive measures just be dismissed as components of liberal wish lists?

It tends to be conservatives who stress the value of having a parent stay home with younger kids, but it’s a choice people with all sorts of political views would like to have. So let’s consider the help required by the many families in which both parents work from economic need — and by single parents who struggle more than anyone with work-family balance. One positive sign: Sens. Michael F. Bennet (D-Colo.) and Mitt Romney (R-Utah) have engaged each other on passing a child tax credit, despite real differences of opinion on how it should be designed.

Similarly, building community is a goal deeply embedded in strains of both conservative and progressive thought. The country lost one of its great communitarian scholars with the death in May of Amitai Etzioni, whose 1993 book “The Spirit of Community” inspired people across political lines. One of his passions: the imperative of balancing our rights with our responsibilities to a common good.

Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) has picked up Etzioni’s torch with a quest to ally the left and the right “to tackle loneliness and strengthen communities.”

In a recent speech on the Senate floor, Murphy highlighted the causes of social isolation — including the substitution of digital communication for personal contact and the decline in local civic organizations. “Loneliness is one of the few issues that defies traditional political boundaries,” he said, and “cuts across almost every demographic.”

Murphy touted one piece of bipartisan work, a bill he co-sponsored with Sens. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii) and Katie Boyd Britt (R-Ala.) to require social media companies to verify the age of users, prevent children younger than 13 from using their platforms and require consent of a parent or guardian before allowing teenagers under 18 on the platforms. He’s working on broader strategies for government action to enhance social connection.

“I get it,” he told fellow senators, anticipating skepticism. “This is a Congress that has a hard time solving much more straightforward problems. So tackling a metaphysical crisis like loneliness might feel like a herculean task.” But maybe it takes a herculean task to bring us together.

Calling on all sides to explore common ground does not mean denying that polarization is asymmetric, that the right has radicalized far more than the left. But this can’t be an excuse for giving up the effort, because we can’t go on like this — and if family and community can’t draw us closer to each other, I don’t know what will.