(What is Tocqueville Capital?  Read the welcome post to learn more!)

“At a time of deep partisan and demographic divides related to the 2020 election, more than two-thirds of Americans surprisingly agree that they ‘have more in common with each other than many people think,’ including 74% of Democrats, 78% of Republicans and 66% of Independents”  (Carr Center, “Key Takeaways: 1”).

This conclusion, one of many from a national survey by Harvard’s Carr Center for Human Rights Policy revealing common ground among Americans, flies in the face of the vitriolic political rhetoric often found on social media and in many of the 2020 general election campaign ads.  Although we have seen much coverage and public evidence of political polarization over the last few decades, as indicated in this post in our partner series From the Field, the term does not accurately describe the bulk of the American public.  The larger findings of this study are not out of sync with other research on the mood of the American public over time. However, regardless of the outcome, the results of the November 3rd election will not end the rancor that seems to pervade the public sphere.

Writing almost a decade ago in Healing the Heart of Democracy: The Courage to Create a Politics Worthy of the Human Spirit, Parker Palmer recognized that the key to transforming our current politics begins with us, the very individuals who compose our society. At the root of his analysis is the role of citizenship “a way of being in the world rooted in the knowledge that I am a member of a vast community of human and nonhuman beings that I depend on for essentials that I could never provide for myself” (31).  This large social system includes millions of individuals, each situated with rights in the political sphere, as well as different experiences and perspectives.  In making his claims, Palmer calls on fundamental ideas from Tocqueville, affirming the values of our habits and their impact on our culture as a means to restore our community.

Central to Palmer’s argument is the fundamental paradox that democracy puts individuals in tension with those whose life experiences and views differ from our own.  Rather than respecting the political equality to which each member of our political community is entitled, we sometimes focus on our own voice to the exclusion of others.  Add to this often-competitive system the great challenges we may encounter, which often results in heartbreak.  Palmer notes that, as we encounter these heartbreaks, we may tend towards one of two responses – the shattered heart becomes “withdrawn and bitter” or the broken-open heart becomes more compassionate (60).  In the former case, people develop the “fight or flight” response that leads them to perceive threats from others, especially those not like them.  In the latter case, people are able to overcome great loss and disappointment and use it to constructively respond to the future, with compassion towards others in their struggles.

From his analysis, Palmer suggests that we can promote more compassionate and respectful political engagement by developing what he calls the “habits of the heart” (43-46). These habits provide a foundational set of principles that shape how we engage each other in the public sphere.  Accepting our interdependence with others who come from different perspectives, and valuing tension as an opportunity for growth in which we, along with others, exercise our voice and agency, ultimately allows us to leverage our collective power to address communal problems.  This transformation will not happen innately but rather relies on our efforts in our educational, religious and political systems (Chapters 6-7).  Despite this seemingly steep learning curve, Palmer also shows that there is precedent for fostering communal habits, captured by Tocqueville himself.

Palmer recalls for his readers Tocqueville’s insistence that “democracy’s future would depend heavily on generations of American citizens cultivating the habits of the heart that support political wholeness” (35). These habits could counter the growing individualism, resulting from relative equality of condition that could shatter the public sphere. Instead, human habits could strengthen the system:

I here used the word manners with the meaning which the ancients attached to the word mores, for I apply it not only to manners in their proper sense of what constitutes the character of social intercourse, but I extend it to the various notions and opinions current among men, and to the mass of those ideas which constitute their character of mind. I comprise, therefore, under this term the whole moral and intellectual condition of a people (Tocqueville 1835, Volume I, Book I, Chapter XVII, par. 9).

The ability to see beyond one’s own immediacy and to recognize and respect the political equality of voice for those with whom we might not regularly interact in our private lives.  In this conception, parallels exist with Jewish theologian Martin Buber’s conceptions of I and Thou, in which individuals see the moral value of both themselves and others, recognizing the need to respect the rights and needs of both.  Recognizing the Thou in each other, especially in those folks who come from different vantage points in society, can inherently shape how we engage each other in the public square.

The limits of individual power also prompt us to connect with others who share our goals. Palmer notes the deep awe that Tocqueville displayed for the vibrant civic life existing on American soil (42).  The collective efforts of those with shared goals allowed both members of the majority and minority to advocate for their causes.

The members of these associations respond to a watchword, like soldiers on duty; they profess the doctrine of passive obedience; say rather, that in uniting together they at once abjure the exercise of their own judgment and free will; and the tyrannical control which these societies exercise is often far more insupportable than the authority possessed over society by the Government which they attack. Their moral force is much diminished by these excesses, and they lose the powerful interest which is always excited by a struggle between oppressors and the oppressed. The man who in given cases consents to obey his fellows with servility, and who submits his activity and even his opinions to their control, can have no claim to rank as a free citizen (Tocqueville 1835, Volume I, Book I, Chapter XII, par. 29).

In these collaborative exercises, we may also find common ground in goals despite disagreement as to the method of achieving them.

These compelling ideas may sound encouraging, especially to those who recognize common values and goals, but the challenge rests in identifying the practical steps that may lead us toward a more constructive and inclusive system.  First, we must recognize that difference of experience and opinion makes us stronger, as illustrated in research on diversity and outcomes. Second, we should take steps to enter what Lennon Flowers and Jennifer Bailey call “brave spaces” – as illustrated in their People’s Supper initiative, which brings together people from different perspectives into meaningful contact with each other.  More thoroughly, we can take advantage of opportunities, such as those offered by Palmer’s Center for Courage and Renewal, to develop spiritual and professional growth.  But first we must be willing to set aside our shattered heart armor and be willing to see the humanity of all people in the public square.

We hold the power within ourselves to step out of the current cycle, not in apathy, but to begin again.  Doing so need not be intimidating, as common ground exists.   The Carr Center (“Key Takeaways: 4 & 5”)results confirm that our values are not polar opposites, with majorities – even supermajorities – supporting the following political ideals and rights: Voting (93%), Equal protection (95%), Free speech (94%), Equal opportunity (93%), Equal opportunity (93%), Privacy (94%), Racial equality (92%), Religious liberty (90%), Right to bear arms (73%), LGBTQ rights (71%).  Add to those findings the consistent strength of relative centrists/ moderates as the largest political group within our political system, the prospect need not seem so daunting.   Rather, it takes conscious effort to set new habits that allow us to harness the strength of our system to address our collective needs.


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