From the first morning after the United States presidential election, it was clear no one really “won.” While President-elect Joe Biden triumphed by more than 6 million votes, the nation remains as split as ever around the core question: Whose policies will win and whose facts are right?
David Blankenhorn is here to persuade Americans that is the wrong fight. The deeper truth, he suggests, is that the collapse of partisan goodwill and shared facts is only a symptom of a collapse of trust in one another.
Mr. Blankenhorn is founder of the Braver Angels initiative, which seeks to foster civil dialogue and understanding across partisan divisions. And in all his conversations with Americans, he’s come to the conclusion that many of the divisions of today are illusions that require effort to expose. He sees people overcoming them everyday: the liberal suburban woman who went to gun shops simply to talk to those she didn’t understand, the conservative man who feared Islam but consented to go to a mosque and became fast friends with one of its congregants.
“What you see out there is rancor and people calling each other the worst possible names, including calling you these names,” he says. “This moment requires a kind of faith that people are not this way.”
There is a joy that comes from reestablishing a baseline of trust, Mr. Blankenhorn says. And that, he argues, is the essence of America. “We need each other to be America,” he says. “The idea that ‘if one side wins or the other side wins, that’s America’ – that’s a denial of America.”
The necessity for this mutual trust is woven into the foundation of the republic. In Federalist No. 55, James Madison wrote that there were elements in human beings that require “a certain degree of circumspection and distrust.” But there are also “other qualities in human nature which justify a certain portion of esteem and confidence.” The democratic republic he was hoping to establish, he wrote, “presupposes the existence of these qualities in a higher degree than any other form” of government. Without them, he added, “the inference would be, that there is not sufficient virtue among men for self-government; and that nothing less than the chains of despotism can restrain them from destroying and devouring one another.”
Sociologists suggest that social trust peaked in the 1960s and has declined since. The cause? The segregation of society into schools, communities, clubs, churches, and social media feeds that no longer allow us to know those unlike us. The solution, then, is something far beyond what politics alone can achieve. Leadership of the right sort is vital, Mr. Blankenhorn suggests, pointing to Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King Jr. as the two figures who best understood the nature of this fight.
But he also cites Václav Havel, the Czech dissident who argued that all real social change begins from the people, and usually with no plan. Only the hope of something better. What we need, Mr. Blankenhorn says, “is a renewal of trust in one another as citizens. ... Can we find one another again?”