Nearly a half century ago, Vice President Spiro Agnew said the Nixon administration spoke for what he called the “silent majority” that would stand up to liberal elites as our society became polarized. But as bad as things were in the late-’60s, things now seem a lot worse now.
Some of it stems from the rise of a leader in President Donald Trump, who is far more divisive and willing to help coarsen political discourse than the soon-to-be-disgraced Agnew could have dreamed. But Trump is a symptom of this sickness and is no more the cause of it than the extremists of the “resistance” who have answered his incivility with their own brand of the same anger-based contempt for opponents.
But what about those who are appalled by the anger on both sides of the political spectrum? According to the More in Common initiative, most Americans aren’t interested in either partisan narrative in which each side delegitimizes and demonizes their opponents. They form, according to a fascinating new study, a demographic group dubbed the “exhausted majority.” But though it makes up about two-thirds of the country, like the people Agnew was appealing to, they are largely silent and being dragged along by partisans on the left and the right.
The paper, titled “Hidden Tribes: A Study of America’s Polarized Landscape,” is must reading for those wanting to understand more about where we are as a country and perhaps how we might dig ourselves out of the hole we’re in.
The conceit of the study is the notion that Americans are divided into political tribes that are not necessarily rooted in economic class or race. Rather, it is a mindset about politics that transcends seemingly everything else that determines not just who we vote for but how we think about a wide range of political, social, and economic issues. It breaks us down into seven tribes: Progressive Activists, Traditional Liberals, Passive Liberals, Political Disengaged, Moderates, Traditional Conservatives, and Devoted Conservatives.
The progressives on the one side and the conservatives on the other are less interested in compromise than those in the middle and strongly believe in the concept that those who agree on the issues should band together and fight their opponents to the finish. As the report concludes, neither tribe on the extremes is entirely representative of the country as a whole. More importantly, they have adopted a view of their opponents that is a caricature that not only fuels their determination to defeat them but makes them think they aren’t merely mistaken but represent a profound danger to the nation.
The problem is, the two extremes have taken over American politics over the course of the last half-century. And since those in the middle are, as the study aptly describes them, exhausted by this endless conflict where neither side gives nor receives quarter, the progressives and the conservatives have come to dominate the thought leaders of society as well as both political parties.
This has been enabled by a number of factors. The development of cable news and talk radio stations staffed by and appealing to the extremes serves as cheering squads for the warring tribes. Perhaps even more important is the dominance of social media that enables us to insulate ourselves inside ideological cocoons in which we can avoid being confronted by any ideas or interpretations of events other than those that confirm their pre-existing opinions and biases.
But the point about being part of either the progressive or conservative grouping is that you view everything through the prism of a narrative in which the other side is to blame for everything.
Nothing has better illustrated that than the fight over the confirmation of Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh, in which both the left and right conceived of their side as blameless and their opponents as awful miscreants dragging down the republic. Every event or piece of news concerning the debate was viewed by just about everyone through a partisan lens that not only distorted their judgment but also made them despise their political foes even more. Being in one of the extreme tribes means you don’t recognize the possibility that the other side might be right.
How do we fix this?
On the eve of a midterm election that is being fought along tribal lines, “Hidden Tribes” couldn’t be timelier or less likely to be ignored by those leading the charge for either party. Yet it is still possible for those in the exhausted middle to speak up and reclaim space for a politics in which demonization of the other — whether it is the “deplorables” that elected Trump or the left-wing “resistance” that is dedicated to destroying him — is set aside for a gentler form of discourse.
That’s as true for Jews — who are probably disproportionately represented in the extremes — as anyone else.
That can begin with more of us putting down our smartphones and trying to listen to our opponents, preferably by sitting down and actually talking with a neighbor, friend, or relative who doesn’t agree with you. The loss of connection to our community is a big part of what has turned politics into a form of religion in which we don’t question our own side but despise everyone else.
That doesn’t mean you have to abandon your principles. But once you relearn how to listen to opponents and treat the other side as human beings rather than cartoon villains to be hounded out of a restaurant or insulted at a rally, then you might agree the political temperature needs to be turned down. That might give us a chance to change tribal warfare that is driving our politics straight into the sewer.
A good self-test to see if any of the above applies to you is if you think the need to listen only applies to those who disagree with your own entirely reasonable views, and whose bad faith and ideas are destroying the country. If so, whether you’re on the left or the right, you’re part of the problem, not the solution.
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor in chief of JNS.org and a contributor to National Review. Follow him on Twitter at: @joanthans_tobin.