Political polarization has plagued the United States substantially, with the intensity of this divide only growing as the years roll by. This toxic environment was made apparent during the 2016 Presidential Election as two of the most unpopular candidates in American electoral history squared off against each other. On one side was Hillary Clinton, a fairly mainstream politician with enough baggage to go on an extended vacation and a fair portion of the country already thinking she was a criminal who should be in jail. In response, a sexual predator of a businessman with no political experience entered the field and won the Electoral College despite losing the popular vote. One does not need to be much of an expert to predict that these circumstances of extreme partisanship will only continue in an age of political cloistering.
“We’re at a moment of extreme geographical sectionalism,” posits Jonathon Rodden of Stanford University to a group of business students. “The question about political polarization in the United States, the question about where we are, what’s happening in the United States after this last election, is all about geography.” Rodden has focused his research on the tendencies towards specific geo-economic groups that define each party, with Republicans leaning toward rural voters and Democrats toward urban ones. It is this geographical divide that has helped drive polarization, as the divide not only demonstrates disparity in incomes but a divergence in cultural thinking. It’s safe to say that Republicans are not going to be easily found in liberal strongholds like San Francisco, just like you’ll sooner find a needle in a haystack than find a Democrat in Mississippi.
It should be noted that these are not the only reasons for the increasingly partisan behavior that plagues our political system. Special interests fund candidates, safe seats prevent incumbents from fearing for their chances, and the 24-hour news media cares more about raking in views than reporting information vital to the continued legitimacy and stability of our republic. Identity politics has also helped drive this discourse, producing, as Columbia University Professor Mark Lilla describes, a generation “narcissistically unaware of conditions outside their self-defined groups, and indifferent to the task of reaching out to Americans in every walk of life.” Geographic cloistering exacerbates each of these issues and makes it increasingly easy to see those Americans outside of one’s ideological habitat as “others”. As the new TV show Electric Dreams made clear in the episode “Kill All Others”, when you start to see people as “others” it is easier to treat them less like people, who have beliefs, dreams, goals, issues, problems, and commitments, and more like threats.
If America is to address this toxic political culture, then we must develop a system for cross-geographical cultural and intellectual pollination. America is an enormous country and unless we are actively encouraging all Americans regardless of their background and wealth to go forth and see everything that is out there, then we will continue to see a political environment plagued with neglect, rejection, and toxicity. Otherwise, we risk a growing socio-economic cloistering that threatens to prioritize our tribe over our nation. To this end, we may turn to an unlikely policymaker that faced down an overzealous constituency and swiftly moved them around in order to give them perspective and tame their fanaticism. Of course, I am referring to Mao Zedong, Chairman of the Chinese Communist Party.
From 1966-1969, the People’s Republic of China was experiencing domestic conflict during the violent stages of the Great Proletariat Cultural Revolution, which continued up until Mao’s death in 1976. This was a problem of Mao’s own creation, as he unleashed ultra-leftist forces that rose up to “bombard the headquarters” of what were seen as Capitalist Roaders. In reality, many of these Capitalist Roaders were high-ranking party officials, many of whom had even served with Mao during the Revolution. No one was safe from these attacks and even the President of China Liu Shaoqi was denounced and forcibly struggled against by a mob, ultimately dying in prison.
When Mao began these denunciations and declared a Cultural Revolution, he had hoped to avoid bureaucratization of the Revolution and the stagnation he had witnessed in the Soviet Union under Khrushchev. He empowered the youth to attack the Four Olds: Old Customs, Old Culture, Old Habits, and Old Ideas. Mao couldn’t afford for the Revolution to stop and decided to mobilize Red Guards across urban China to terrorize his enemies.
It did not take long for this to get out of control. A year-long firefight broke out at Beijing University. Red Guards seized weapons shipments meant for the Viet Cong. The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) took armed labor unions to counter the radical youth. Urban production ground to a halt and people were murdered by vigilantes in the streets. Schools were no longer in session and many teachers were killed by their own students for being ostensible counter-revolutionaries. Recognizing that the situation was out of control and heeding the council of his long-time friend and Premier Zhou Enlai, Mao ordered the PLA to reassert order throughout China and disarm the Red Guards.
Youth from the Four Grades (those age groups most likely to have been involved in the Red Guards) were rounded up such that they would no longer be an roving armed threat. Mao declared the “Up to the Mountains and Down to the Countryside” Movement, in which the youth would be sent to the countryside to learn revolution from the peasants. Due to his origins as an insurgent organizer with the Chinese Communist Party, Mao believed that peasants were the basis for revolutionary action, especially in a rural nation like China. Since they were the foundation of the nation, the youth would go and join the peasants in order to be re-educated to properly conduct revolution.
Whatever high minded idealism had driven these Red Guard elements was quickly squashed when they arrived at the rural regions. The zealots quickly realized that the peasants cared little for the dialecticism of Marx and prioritized their own survival, dependent on a rough harvest cycle. The youth were put to work in the fields and mines, not allowed to return to the cities they had journeyed from for many years. Once they returned, this same generation no longer focused on ideological purity but on developing the prosperity of the nation and modernizing it with the reforms of Deng Xiaoping. In fact, these same (initially) hyper-ideological youth would go on to crush the next wave of youthful revolt in China at Tiananmen Square.
Obviously, this example is an extreme one and Democrats and Republicans are certainly not actively conducting mass vigilante violence at this time. However, that does not mean we cannot learn from it so as to reduce the cultural barriers that already exist in the United States. If we are to have a healthy political discourse, then it is important that we have greater understanding among all parties and populations across geographic, economic, and racial or ethnic divides.. This sort of understanding is not going to arise from social media and the increased connectivity it engenders. Social media has already shown the limits of human connection and the race to the bottom that is triggered by the impersonal nature of the screen. Instead, the connection must come from actual physical interactions and the slow development of relations across such chasms.
It is far more difficult to engage in cultural identity politics when constantly faced with people who share neither your point of view nor your cultural understandings. A few loud activists have hijacked the conversation, demanding that others change without considering the perspective or the situation of the people from whom they expect so much. All assail all and it is such cultural conflict that only furthers the political divisions that we find so tiring. In turn, social media networks are seen as viable alternatives to tangible relationships, when they often do little other than reinforce preexisting beliefs and perceptions. Like Mao, we must calm the zealots in our midst by pushing them towards the very people they claim to oppose.
After graduating from high school, students should be required to take two years of national service. In this program, they would be sent to areas unlike their home. This would expose them to alternative viewpoints and force them into the cultural conditions of their fellow Americans. As a nation, we cannot afford to allow for wide cultural chasms to exist where geographic divides do. It is through this method we as a society may start to have a serious discussion about common American identity.
At these new places, students will develop tangible relationships with the people of their service site and build lasting, emotional connections with people unlike those they will return to. This policy could be paid for by a mix of funding from the local, state, and federal governments, as each could use the program to develop and strengthen their own ties between local areas within states as large and diverse as California or Michigan, and across state borders. This and other policy ideas must be given greater consideration and thought in order to prevent a fraughtful end to American society that might splinter into a confederation of geo-social societies. It is time to replace the culture war with an honest cultural forum whereby our citizenry develops a fuller understanding based on personal experience of the multifaceted and diverse American experience.
William Truban is an alumnus of the Frank Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy at UVA. While there, he studied foreign and security policy.