In the past decade, the American electorate has become so polarized that scholars are beginning to wonder if democracy can survive here. We increasingly see politics as an ongoing battle between ideological opponents with no common interests. Political rivals are seen as illegitimate, opposed to the common good and threatening to our way of life. An election victory by the opposition is seen as endangering democracy or Western culture and that justifies norm-breaking responses. On the left, we might pack the Supreme Court; on the right, storm the Capitol.
At the root of this polarization is what Danielle Allen refers to in her primer on citizenship as “congealed distrust,” an insurmountable road block to solving “collective problems” because democratic problem-solving “depends on trustful talk among strangers.” (Monk; Allen, xiii; See also, Hess and McAvoy, xvi).
Schools, unfortunately, are contributing to the polarization of the American electorate. As Americans increasingly sort ourselves into ideologically homogenous communities, more and more schools fall into a category that two scholars of political education call “like-minded schools,” in which the vast majority of students hold similar political values.
Studies show that "when we live and work among people who generally think as we do, our views tend to become more extreme and less tolerant," which "ferments extremism and causes demonization of legitimate political difference" (Hess and McAvoy, 26).
Parents (especially conservative ones) are increasingly worried about the politicization of schools. A 2011 survey found that half of Americans think social studies teachers use their classes as political platforms (Hess and McAvoy, 205). And that perception has surely deepened in recent years. Conservative fears of liberal indoctrination in schools are not altogether unfounded. FEC data show that 83 percent of political donations made by high school teachers went to the Democratic Party.
But teachers in like-minded schools can push against the intolerance that festers in ideologically homogeneous bubbles and do their part to depolarize our democracy. I think it's their civic duty to at least try.
Most teachers seem to agree. One survey found that 65 percent of teachers say they try to keep politics out of their classroom.
But that approach won’t solve the problem for teachers of politically charged subjects like history and civics. And politics is likely to sneak into the room no matter what subject you’re teaching.
Also, disengagement from politics is one of the negative consequences of polarization. According to a recent study by Reuters, 40 percent of Americans have stopped following the news, a higher rate of news-avoidance than almost every other democratic country. People, it seems, are tired of reading about problems that can’t be solved. And the ones who disengage tend to be more moderate and less intolerant than the ones who don't.
All of America’s teachers should be asking whether there is a way to teach politics that diminishes rather than increases polarization. After all, today’s students are tomorrow’s voting citizens.
Conservatives might argue that a proper education for citizenship should focus on teaching students the nuts and bolts of America’s Democratic institutions and instilling patriotism and admiration for the handiwork of the founding fathers. Many liberals have concluded that a civics education should instill a passion for social justice and foster engagement in that system to improve it.
Danielle Allen’s work, elaborated on by Diana Hess and Paula McAvoy in their study of political education at America’s high schools, points in a different direction. A citizen, they argue, needs to understand the inevitability of sacrifice and its role in democracy, to distinguish between legitimate and illegitimate sacrifice, and to become capable of deliberating with fellow citizens who have opposing interests and different convictions about what constitutes “social justice” and the common good. This requires the skills of listening and understanding the views of people you disagree with, what civics advocate Moira Kelly referred to as “cognitive empathy” at a conference I attended.
They would likely agree with conservatives about the need for knowledge of the system, but perhaps not about instilling a particular notion of patriotism. They would agree with the liberals about engagement but would warn against imposing a particular vision of social justice.
This last point is essential. A proper education must be non-partisan. Teachers must refrain from imposing their own policy preferences on their students. This is the bedrock of teaching political subjects, according to Hess and McAvoy’s Political Classroom. This principle of neutrality applies, the authors argue, to any issue that is currently open—a matter of live controversy in our national politics. It does not apply to issues that are closed or settled, like slavery or women’s suffrage. (Hess and McAvoy address open and closed questions in Chapter 8).
Joel Kushner, a teacher profiled in the book, treats the issues of abortion and affirmative action as open questions, upon which he cannot impose his liberal preference, or even slant the readings in one direction. When, faced with a balanced selection of evidence, some of his liberal students end up agreeing with the conservative position in a court case on religion in the public sphere, Kushner, a liberal, is unfazed (114-115). Instead of persuading his students to adopt his own policy positions, Kushner wants to teach them about how democracy works and how to harmoniously and productively engage with fellow citizens and engage in collective decision-making.
Democracy and Sacrifice
One of the most important lessons students need to learn to become democratic citizens is that in spite of the individual freedom and sovereignty that democracies promise their citizens, we don’t always get our way even in a well-functioning democracy and are often asked to sacrifice our personal preferences and interests for the good of the whole, the survival of democracy, and the maintenance of peace. When our candidate loses the election, when we are drafted and sent into battle, and when policies favored by the majority disadvantage us or go against what we think is good, we are sacrificing something.
To illustrate the inevitability of sacrifice, Allen points to the Federal Reserve’s decision to raise interest rates in 2000 to tame inflation. That decision imposed a disproportionate sacrifice on some citizens when unemployment inevitably increased and wages flat-lined as a result. Others gained when investors reacted to the news of impending recession by bidding up the price of stocks.
Learning how to negotiate the losses one experiences at the hands of the public is fundamental to becoming a political actor, not only for minorities suffering political abuses, but for all citizens. (Allen, Talking to Strangers, 30)
Allen explores the difference between legitimate and illegitimate sacrifice. She begins her book with a discussion of the central failure of American democracy—the disproportionate and illegitimate sacrifices that African Americans like her have been forced to bear. Not until the triumphs of the Civil Rights Movement, she argues, did America become a true democracy.
How, she asks, can democratic citizens avoid imposing illegitimate or disproportionate sacrifice on fellow citizens and “generate enough political friendship” to “convert the distrust arising from political disappointment [and sacrifice] into trust” (Allen, 30)?
The interest rate hike might be seen as a legitimate sacrifice if it saved the majority of citizens from ruinous inflation. On the other hand, when stock-holders repeatedly win and wage workers repeatedly lose, congealed distrust is a likely result.
Societies can maintain or restore trust by recognizing and honoring citizens' sacrifice, Allen argues. We recognize the sacrifices of soldiers—the VA, Memorial Day, Veterans’ Day, Arlington National Cemetery, countless monuments all over the country, like the one in the photograph above. America has also begun to recognize the tremendous, usually illegitimate sacrifices made by African Americans throughout our history: the National Museum of African American History and Culture, the Martin Luther King Jr., Memorial on the National Mall, Bryan Stevenson’s National Memorial for Peace and Justice—and the monument depicted above. Other sorts of sacrifice quietly endured may be less costly, but are also important for the preservation of peace in a democratic system.
Can they be recognized and honored too? As interest rates rise again, is anyone acknowledging how low-wage-earners and the unemployed are likely to be sacrificed to save the rest of us from inflation? How do we deal with sacrifice aside from building monuments?
Allen has developed, a theory of “political friendship” as a way of strengthening democracy by better managing sacrifice and building trust among citizens. Hess, and McAvoy argue for making that theory the basis of political education in grade school.
In a democracy, our collective fate depends on the maintenance of good will among strangers. Citizens must recognize this mutual dependence and treat these strangers, in a sense, as friends.
Friends often willingly restrain their own individual interests for the sake of what they see as a greater good: maintaining the friendship. Sometimes friends will even compete to make a sacrifice, as when they fight over who will pay the lunch tab.
Political friends are likely to have even greater competing interests and more diverse values and beliefs than intimate friends, but like intimate friends, they have an overriding interest in peaceful coexistence. Good citizens know that to keep the peace and nurture democracy, they must embrace the value of fairness and consider who is being made to sacrifice when particular policies are enacted. Citizens need to balance their own self-interest with the rights and well-being and interests of fellow citizens and not ask others to make illegitimate sacrifices.
Like real friends who keep track of who paid for lunch the last time, citizens should always be asking what costs they are passing on to others, and whether the policies they favor are advancing the general good, or just the interests of a more powerful class of people (Allen, 119).
Elections and policy decisions can't be winner-take-all. Citizens must reject an attitude of rivalrous self-interest in which people compete for benefits with no concern for the impact on others or the collective.
Allen's concept of friendship is preferable to the currently fashionable notion in progressive circles of allyship because it acknowledges the fact that all political actors are entitled to and will inevitably pursue their own self-interest in the political world. And they need to be able think and reason for themselves. But if citizens pursue their own interests without restraint—without considering the impact on other citizens—distrust increases and democracy weakens. Thus, citizens can and will act in their own interests, but they should consider the harmonious relationship with "political friends" and important interest and move from rivalrous self-interest to what Allen calls "equitable self-interest."
Friends know that if we always act according to our own interests in an unrestrained fashion, our friendships will not last very long. Friendship teaches us when and where to moderate our interests for our own sake. In short, friendship solves the problem of rivalrous self-interest by converting it into equitable self-interest, where each friend moderates her own interest for the sake of preserving the relationship (Allen, 120).
Friends don’t push their advantages to the limit because the friendship, it turns out, is worth more than the sacrificed advantages. Citizens too, gain more from the peace that comes with treating fellow citizens fairly and from exercising forbearance—self-restraint in the exercise of power.
Teach political friendship
Danielle Allen was a contributor to the December 2019 “How to Stop a Civil War” issue of The Atlantic magazine, which featured articles about polarization and what might be done about it. One of the articles in particular stood out because of its focus on an excruciatingly earnest effort to overcome polarization by getting people from opposing political sides talking and listening to each other, developing cognitive empathy and practicing epistemic humility. The group was calling itself “Better Angels,” a phrase taken from Lincoln’s first inaugural—an earlier earnest but failed effort to prevent a civil war. Though they don't use the term as far as I know, they seem to be fostering something like Allen's notion of political friendship.
Their group is small compared to the size of the problem, but the effort is commendable.
Teachers should follow the example of Better Angels—who later changed their name to Braver Angels to reflect the courage needed to engage in that work—and do whatever they can to depolarize the future electorate, which is now in their hands.
If they use Allen and The Political Classroom as guides, that would mean getting students to think about who is sacrificing as a result of a given policy, to recognize the difference between legitimate and illegitimate sacrifice and equitable and rivalrous self-interest, to see the connection between rivalrous self-interest and illegitimate sacrifice, and to appreciate the importance of trust among citizens in a healthy democracy. They might also examine how communities honor some sacrifices and ignore others.
The task is particularly challenging for teachers like me who teach in like-minded schools, where students rarely encounter people with opposing viewpoints and are likely to think of them in abstract terms, as unreasonable, ignorant, or acting in bad faith.
A case study by Hess and McAvoy of Joel Kushner’s classes—at a school where 94 percent of students identify as Democrats—offers some suggestions for how to overcome those challenges.
Kushner’s curriculum pushes against that attitude by assigning readings that make persuasive arguments on different sides of policy issues and encouraging students to listen and understand (cognitive empathy) before criticizing and rebutting. He plays devil's advocate when necessary, but thinks its better for students to encounter actual people who disagree with them. To make that happen, he invites guest speakers who hold views uncommon in his school community. For example, he invited an anti-abortion activist to speak to his mostly pro-choice students.
And significant differences often arise even within a group of liberal students. Kushner shapes "discussion questions so students will naturally disagree" (Hess and McAvoy, 117). When they do, he doesn’t stop emotional exchanges. In a discussion of Affirmative Action, a Black girl defended the policy by bringing in her personal experiences of racism, which in the context of a court case they had studied, seemed to be irrelevant to the question at hand. Rather than steering the conversation away from her emotionally charged comments toward more relevant information in the assigned readings, Kushner let the discussion unfold from there without intervention.
Kushner’s restraint in that case is supported by Allen’s comments on the role of emotion in politics:
It is just as impossible to exclude emotion from politics as to ban interest.... As soon as one begins to take trust and distrust seriously, and to ask how trust can be generated, one realizes that reason, interest, and emotion cannot be disentangled (Allen, 56).Expression of emotion between citizens humanizes us and is an essential ingredient in the generation of trust. “Sociability, not rationality, produces agreement” Allen writes, and only in emotionally honest conversation do citizens find out “what their fellow citizens are worth to them” (Allen, 96).
Our political “disagreements have as much to do with reciprocity and issues of mutual esteem as with the substantive issue under discussion.” Trust among citizens is fragile and tenuous, given our geographic separation and conflicting interest and values, and so we “must be committed to [trust generation] in perpetuity” (Allen, 97).
The emotion that occurs naturally in political discussions is an aspect of the authenticity that Kushner values in the teaching of politics. It is preferable for students to encounter authentic political viewpoints expressed by those who hold them rather than listening to him play the devil's advocate. The devil's advocate removes the personal from the political. When students encounter real people holding real views, not just intellectual abstractions, it helps them see those people as having moral worth. To be good citizens they need to learn how to talk about differences in ways that preserve relationships and respect. They need practice responding to such others in a way that promotes goodwill, respect, and humility. (Hess and McAvoy, 117, 127).
Humanizing political rivals is important, but so is understanding them—developing "cognitive empathy," as Moira Kelly put it. It helps if you keep an open mind. Hess and McAvoy say that citizens should always be asking themselves: “could I be wrong?” Humanities teachers put a lot of emphasis on critical reading of documents, and training students to look for hidden meanings and unconscious bias in the thoughts of others. But first we should be teaching them to be aware of their own unconscious drives and hidden biases and to develop "epistemic humility." An effective visual tool is the “cognitive bias codex.” When students read about some of these they should recognize how they are just as prone to faulty thinking as people they disagree with.
Schools would make a significant contribution to saving American democracy if they would produce a new generation of citizens with more cognitive empathy, epistemic humility, an understanding of what citizens owe each other, and a determination to foster trust among their fellow citizens. It’s not an immediate solution, and it may not work as intended, but it would be inexcusable not to make the effort.
Notes and sources
On polarization, see Yasha Monk, "The Doom Spiral of Pernicious Polarization," The Atlantic, May 21, 2022. For a right justification of norm-breaking, see Michael Anton, “The Flight 93 Election,” Claremont Review of Books, originally published under the pseudonym, Publius Decius Mus on Sept. 6, 2019; for a Left-justification, Corey Robin, "Democracy is Norm Erosion," Jacobin, Jan. 29, 2018.
For an example of the perception that schools indoctrinate students in progressive or liberal values, see Ethan King, Letter to the Editor, Caledonian Record, Sept. 2, 2021.
FEC data on teachers and others' political contributions is listed in numerous places. This one shows high school teachers as 95% Democrat in a graph at the top; below it gives the 83% number.
Amanda Ripley, “I stopped reading the news,” Washington Post, July 8, 2022.
Moira Kelly, Executive Director and President of Explo and Associate Producer for the Commission on Presidential Debates spoke about cognitive empathy in her talk, “Promoting Cognitive Empathy in a Polarized Society,” at the AISNE Annual Diversity Conference, Lexington, Mass., Nov. 2016. Kelly argues that citizenship requires cognitive empathy rather than emotional empathy, which can be counter productive. On this negative potential for emotional empathy, see Jodi Clarke, “Cognitive vs. Emotional Empathy” at Verywellmind.com: “When our vicarious emotional arousal becomes too great, it can actually get in the way of us being compassionate and empathizing. Feeling emotionally dysregulated can become overwhelming and result in feeling burned out. Ultimately, this leaves you not wanting to practice empathy because it's too painful to be there for someone else. Our ability to practice emotional empathy becomes a threat to our own well-being when it results in feelings of isolation, being misunderstood, and feeling inauthentic.” Kelly also argued that the best method for teaching cognitive empathy is the Harkness Method, pioneered at Phillips Exeter Academy.
On “Forebearance,” see Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, How Democracies Die, (2018).
The “How to Stop a Civil War,” Atlantic issue was December, 2019. See, esp. Andrew Ferguson, “Can this Marriage be Saved?” 86-90. See also, the Podcast featuring Danielle Allen discussing the issue. A Single copy of the December 2019 is available on Amazon.
Braver Angels website.
Upcoming related posts on this blog (maybe--school year starts soon): How Joel Kushner seeks to foster trust among students in his racially and socioeconomically diverse classroom; My reading notes: the source of “Political Friendship”; You could be wrong; Teaching citizenship vs. teaching social justice.