America's vicious family feud

On the decline of civic empathy

The start of something terribly long and brutally bitter.
(Image credit: Gary Waters / Alamy Stock Photo)

The election of Donald Trump to the presidency is troubling for many reasons. There's the president-elect's volatile temperament, his utter ignorance about policy and the rudimentary functioning of government, his unsettling choices in senior advisers, his "angry, arrogant" transition team, and much more.

But just as troubling is a cultural trend that preceded the Trumpian earthquake by several years, contributed to it in important ways, and is bound to be intensified by it in the years to come. This is the decline of civic empathy — the capacity to listen respectfully and compassionately to the complaints, fears, anxieties, and anger of fellow citizens with whom we disagree about the highest goods in life.

It's the decline in civic empathy that feeds the longing for a new nationalism that will reunify the country — a longing that Trump has encouraged and promised to fulfill. But the decline in civic empathy also makes the fulfillment of that longing impossible. America is politically polarized, as we know all too well. That polarization has now insinuated itself into other facets of life, rending the country's cultural, moral, and religious fabric. Regions, states, cities, towns, neighborhoods, churches, and sometimes even families are deeply divided, with members glaring at each other across yawning chasms of incomprehension and sometimes even mutual disgust.

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This isn't a prelude to a civil war. But it could be the early stages of a long, drawn out, vicious family feud (as my friend and colleague Noah Millman eloquently put it in an email) — one that pits American against American in a battle over seemingly incompatible moral, cultural, and political visions of the country's past, present, and future. Until we get past our anger and mutual suspicion to begin listening, understanding, and tolerating one another, the battle is bound to drag on, testing our national cohesion in the process.

The dynamic can be observed in a multitude of places — in the nastiness of the just-completed presidential campaign, in the sporadic violence that has erupted in the week since, in the rancor that marks so many of our Facebook and Twitter feeds. But I'd like to focus on just one representative place online in which it plays out in especially vivid form.

Rod Dreher is a social conservative and devoutly Christian writer who is deeply worried about what he believes will be the active persecution of people like him in a country in which the Supreme Court has declared (in the Obergefell case) same-sex marriage to be a constitutional right, and in which religiously based opposition to it has been deemed a form of discrimination that liberalism must stamp out using the full coercive power of the federal government.

Over the past couple of years, Dreher's blog at The American Conservative has served as a kind of compendium of and clearinghouse for stories of tradition-minded Christians being bullied by governments, corporations, universities, and other institutions into conforming with the post-Obergefell order of things. More often the stories express anxiety about persecution that has yet to arrive but is just around the corner. Many posts sketch a future in which conservative religious believers will be driven underground and forced to conceal their views in public, and a number of them end with Dreher ominously intoning, "Make no mistake, this is coming."

If you were to read only his posts that discuss issues of religious persecution, you'd conclude that Dreher is a great defender of freedom of thought and belief, and a scourge of bullies everywhere. But quite a lot of posts on his blog have a different aim and tone. When he isn't pointing to (or anticipating) the suffering of his fellow social conservatives, he's often highlighting incidents of lunacy committed by cultural leftists on college campuses, and occasionally within the corporate world as well. Hardly a week goes by without Dreher injecting himself into a conflict at a university, harshly ridiculing tenured "social justice warriors" and precious student "snowflakes" who demand "safe spaces" where they can feel protected from any opinion that threatens, or even diverges faintly from, their own (apparently very fragile) secular, left-liberal, multicultural beliefs.

The contrast between these two categories of posts would be less glaring if Dreher were not also well known for promoting something he calls a "Benedict Option," in which conservative religious believers seek to protect, preserve, and strengthen their communities in the face of present and future religious persecution. Is this not a "safe space"? The contradiction is so blatant that it's difficult not to conclude that Dreher's objection to campus leftists isn't so much that they seek to insulate and protect themselves from outside influences as that they're protecting, preserving, and strengthening beliefs that Dreher views with utter contempt.

I don't mean to single out Dreher for criticism. He is a friend. I admire and have learned from many of his cultural, moral, and religious insights over the years. And I share many of his concerns about the future of religious freedom in the United States. But I also think it needs to be said that many of the individuals and groups that Dreher incessantly attacks on his blog are seeking to defend people who, historically speaking, have faced centuries of actual persecution at the hands of the state and private citizens. In many cases, that persecution came to an end within living memory, and often just within the last few years, and sometimes it persists down to this day.

Does that not make these people deserving of at least a little civic empathy?

But of course another reason why Dreher doesn't deserve to be singled out is that his opponents do precisely the same thing to him — advocating safe spaces for themselves while denouncing people who hold beliefs like his as homophobic bigots who deserve to be coerced by anti-discrimination law into publicly affirming the gay and transgender agenda in every respect. That the norms, practices, and beliefs of all the monotheistic faiths have upheld traditional families and gender roles for centuries is supposedly irrelevant. To hell with empathy! Our side won! The bigots need to suck it up and conform — or accept their just punishment!

Now take the animosity between Dreher and his opponents and imagine it playing itself out hundreds and thousands of times across the country every day, in personal and online interactions. That's America today, with sub-political attachments and antagonisms increasingly overriding the national solidarity that makes civic empathy possible. Without a shared sense that we hold a certain history or body of ideals in common, it becomes impossible to take the cares and concerns, anxieties and fears of our fellow citizens seriously. In such circumstances, the "nation" amounts to nothing more than the sum total of tribes jostling for position, competing for power, in an endless series of zero-sum games. It's politics conducted as a civil war by other means.

How America will regenerate the sense of national commonality it so desperately needs is unclear. But we can be quite certain it won't be advanced by a political movement as divisive as the one that just catapulted Donald Trump to the White House.

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