California Forum

Something has happened to American discourse. And it could break our democracy

Anti- and pro-Trump supporters clash in 2017 during competing demonstrations at Martin Luther King Jr. Civic Center Park in Berkeley. (Anda Chu/Bay Area News Group/TNS)
Anti- and pro-Trump supporters clash in 2017 during competing demonstrations at Martin Luther King Jr. Civic Center Park in Berkeley. (Anda Chu/Bay Area News Group/TNS) TNS

My greatest fear for the future of American democracy is the deep polarization of our society. A survey recently found that 11 percent of Americans would not want a family member to marry someone of a different race, but 40 percent would not want a family member to marry someone of a different political party. Last week, President Donald Trump’s approval rating among Democrats was five percent, but it was 80 percent among Republicans.

Our rhetoric towards each other has become much uglier. I see this every week in the emails I receive in response to my columns in this newspaper. I have been writing opeds for over 30 years and am used to people sharply disagreeing with me. But the tone has changed.

No form of government lasts forever. As we have seen in other countries, a democracy is there until it isn’t.

Last week, I received a message that began, “Erwin Chemerinsky is a moron.” I received a message recently that said: “You are the typical domestic terrorist with nothing to do constructively but trying to liven up your boring life by injecting your recurring poisonous ideas into the political stage of the country.” Or the message that began, “You are a liar and should be fired from UC Liberal Whackjob University.” And then there are the ones that use profanities or are stunningly crude.

This, of course, is not the first time that our country has been deeply divided. During my lifetime, there were intense disagreements over civil rights and the Vietnam war. But I do not think that the nation has been this riven since the Civil War.

There is no easy explanation for why this has happened. To be sure, liberals and conservatives disagree over many fundamental value choices. But it is more than that. There is a widespread sense that government is broken and there has been a steady erosion of public trust in institutions for the last half century, but there is no agreement at all as to why or to the fix.

Also changes in the media have fueled the divide. In the 20th century, a shared national media – movies and then radio and then television – helped lessen regional and other differences. Everyone was watching the same news and the same entertainment.

But the enormous proliferation of media with internet and cable and satellites mean that we tend to receive information that caters to our existing beliefs. It often seems that Fox News and MSNBC are covering different countries, even when they are reporting on what is going on in the United States. And these media outlets, conservative and liberal, foment division by vilifying those with different views.

History shows that deeply divided societies are politically unstable. But there is no simple solution for how to heal this split. One way to begin is to change how we talk to each other; we must find a way to disagree without being disagreeable. We should condemn those in public life – liberals and conservatives – who engage in vitriolic rhetoric and personal attacks.

This includes the president of the United States. Last week, Trump referred to his Attorney General, Jeff Sessions, as “Mr. Magoo,” an incompetent near-sighted cartoon character. Trump has taken to calling Congressman Adam Schiff as “Liddle Adam,” referring to his height. Weren’t we all taught in elementary school not to ridicule someone’s physical characteristics? This contributes nothing to a discussion of the issues and it sets a terrible example for the country.

Second, we should encourage our politicians to look for areas of shared interests and to compromise more often. Much unites us: We all want a better world for our children, including better education and a cleaner environment. We all realize a need for better infrastructure.

We should pressure politicians to include in their cabinets those from the other political party. Surely Trump can find some Democrats in the entire country who he respects for a couple of the seats in his cabinet.

Third, we should pressure for creating new mechanisms that will help lessen the divide. For example, I long have thought that those making judicial appointments – presidents and governors – should create bipartisan merit selection committees to recommend nominees.

The president or governor can agree to pick from among a list of submitted names or ask for additional names, so long as recommended nominees are supported by two-thirds of the nominating committee’s members. This will produce judges who are of the highest quality and are much less likely to be perceived as partisan selections.

No form of government lasts forever. As we have seen in other countries, a democracy is there until it isn’t.

I am not being apocalyptic and forecasting the end of American democracy, but the intense polarization has me very worried.

Erwin Chemerinsky is dean and professor of law at the UC Berkeley School of Law. He can be reached at echemerinsky@law.berkeley.edu.

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