Blue background and red and white wavy stripes with white stars. Headshot of CEO David Harmer. Text on the image reads, "We the People of the United States, in Order to Form A More Perfect Union."

By David Harmer

Few of life’s pleasures compare with that of confessing someone else’s sins—and that’s a pleasure at which we Americans, across the political spectrum, have become woefully proficient. Pick an issue of public policy—the 2020 election and January 6; ballot access and ballot security; COVID-19, its origin, and public health authorities’ responses; Black Lives Matter and Critical Race Theory; freedom of speech and cancel culture—and partisans on each side are quick to denounce the evils of the other while ignoring or excusing their own. But evidence suggests that perceptions of the other side are as erroneous as they are poisonous.

“Every movement contains a range of viewpoints, from moderate to extreme,” Victoria Parker writes in The Atlantic. “Unfortunately, Americans on each side of the political spectrum believe—incorrectly—that hard-liners dominate the opposite camp.” From recent research, she cites these examples:

  • “Police departments are irreversibly broken and racist, so the government needs to get rid of them completely.” Only 28 percent of liberals even somewhat agreed. But conservatives thought 61 percent of liberals agreed.
  • Asked whether police were almost always justified in their shootings of Black people, only 31 percent of conservatives even somewhat agreed. But liberals thought 57 percent of conservatives agreed.
  • Should controversial speakers be banned from college campuses? Only 33 percent of liberals agreed. Conservatives thought 63 percent did.
  • “Hostile and unwelcoming attitudes toward immigrants.” Only 22 percent of conservatives expressed them. Liberals thought 57 percent did.

In each instance, a view held by only one-fifth to one-third of the ideological adversaries was erroneously attributed to a supermajority. Why? Rusty Guinn explains:

In all cases the caricature will represent an imperfect but politically useful abstraction.

Have you ever wondered how it is possible that we often manage to judge those aligned with us to be almost uniformly reasonable, sensible and sane? How the hypocrisy, extremeness and dishonesty of our opponents know no bounds? [. . .]

Powerful narratives have a way of shutting down our brains [. . . .]

But that is the point.

Keeping us enraged is the point.

Forcing us to abstract our opponent into a caricature of dishonesty and bad faith is the point.

Ensuring we don’t have time to consider our opponent’s humanity is the point.

It’s precisely what President Washington warned against in his magisterial farewell address:

One of the expedients of party to acquire influence within particular districts is to misrepresent the opinions and aims of other districts. You cannot shield yourselves too much against the jealousies and heartburnings which spring from these misrepresentations; they tend to render alien to each other those who ought to be bound together by fraternal affection. [. . .]

Let me now take a more comprehensive view, and warn you in the most solemn manner against the baneful effects of the spirit of party generally.

This spirit, unfortunately, is inseparable from our nature, having its root in the strongest passions of the human mind. [. . .]

It serves always to distract the public councils and enfeeble the public administration. It agitates the community with ill-founded jealousies and false alarms, kindles the animosity of one part against another, foments occasionally riot and insurrection.

Far from avoiding partisanship, we’ve embraced it. A Stanford University scholar found that Americans overall are more strongly attached to their political party than to all other social identifiers and characteristics, inherent or chosen—even language, religion, race, and gender! After surveying U.S. adults on foreign policy, business, the economy, labor, gender, sexuality, the role of government, immigration, the social safety net, climate, environment, racial attitudes, and gun policy, the Pew Research Center reported: “Partisanship continues to be the dividing line in the American public’s political attitudes, far surpassing differences by age, race and ethnicity, gender, educational attainment, religious affiliation or other factors.”

There’s at least one thing on which “large shares of both Biden and Trump voters agree [. . .] those who supported the other candidate have little or no understanding of people like them.”

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In these times of division and discord, polarization and partisanship, Freedoms Foundation at Valley Forge focuses on what unites us as Americans: our founding ideals, as articulated in the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights, and as pursued, however imperfectly, from the Revolution through the present day. We educate students and teachers about the rights and corresponding responsibilities of American citizenship, including the civility and mutual respect that must characterize fellow citizens in a free Republic. We envision an America where the rising generation loves their country and understands, appreciates, and defends its founding ideals. We seek to inspire Americans of all parties and persuasions to heed President Lincoln’s plea:

We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.

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