How Democrats Can Combat Republican Divisiveness

Asking the American public to recognize nuance is not elitist. It’s necessary.

Can you spot the problem with this question from a Fox News poll?

The latest Fox News survey asks voters how they view the country’s Founders. Sixty-three percent see them as heroes, while 15 percent say villains. Another 15 percent say it depends and 7 percent gave no opinion.

The results allowed Ben Shapiro to go on a bit of a rant, primarily aimed at African Americans.

The problem, of course, lies in the fact that the question only gives respondents two choices about how to describe this country’s founders: hero or villain. For many of us—especially those whose ancestors were held as slaves—the options needed to be more nuanced.

But nuance isn’t something that modern-day Republicans value. For them, the world is divided up into the dichotomies of good and evil, right and wrong, heroes and villains. That is why a quote from Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s book, The Gulag Archipelago, is so powerful.

If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?

When we talk about the divisiveness of Donald Trump and his enablers, it is their constant attempt to label the opposition as “evil” that is at the heart of the problem. Once the evil ones have been identified, the natural progression is to “separate them from the rest of us and destroy them.” The question from the Fox News poll gave Shapiro his target.

Were someone like Shapiro to actually recognize nuance, it would come in the form of the Fredrick Douglass speech that I referred to previously titled, “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?” After describing this country’s founders as both courageous and wise, he made it clear that “This Fourth [of] July is yours, not mineYou may rejoice, I must mourn.” We can be fairly certain that if Douglass were asked that ridiculous poll question from Fox News, he would answer “depends” and find himself on the receiving end of Shaprio’s disdain.

To the extent that the American electorate can recognize the importance of nuance, it is one of the most powerful tools to awaken them from the zero sum game of these dichotomies embraced by Republicans. This is how one white evangelical woman in Texas put it.

Kelsey Hency, who graduated from the conservative Dallas Theological Seminary, talked about how she had adopted a black infant as Mr. Trump swept the Republican primaries and had realized how much she needed to learn about race. “It brought the torrent of everything else…What Trump did was almost give us permission to take back nuance,” she said.

For those who would suggest that asking the American public to recognize nuance is just another form of elitism, I would point out that pretty much any responsible parent knows how important it is to hold a child accountable when they do something wrong. But they also know that bad behavior from their children doesn’t make them evil—it simply means they’re human. And to correct them is a big part of what it means to love them. That kind of awareness is simply common sense.

A few years ago I asked the question, “Is Uncertainty a Liberal Value?”

I’ve come to believe that listening requires a suspension of certainty – at least long enough to hear what the other person is saying and attempt to empathize with where they are coming from. It also requires some curiosity about perspectives different from our own. It is in that spirit that I ask the question: Are things like uncertainty, listening, curiosity and empathy liberal values?

During these days when joining the struggle to “perfect our union” is being vilified as threat to our country, I would suggest that we need to add a recognition of the importance of nuance to that list of liberal values.

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Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly. Follow her on Twitter @Smartypants60.