Activism and Apathy Are Poisoning American Politics

(Stock photo via Getty Images.)

Longtime readers will know that I’m somewhat obsessed with the topics of American animosity and partisan polarization. Heck, I wrote an entire book about the potentially mortal dangers of America’s political divisions. And one thing I keep thinking about is the extent to which Americans hate their political opponents, and the extent to which they’re wrong about the people they hate. 

The rage is real. Last month I wrote about the latest survey from my friends at More In Common. They attempted to discern the true extent of American divisions in the so-called “history wars”—the battles over teaching our nation’s history in public schools. I shared this chart from the study. Behold the low regard we have for our partisan opponents:

If you look at that chart, you’d think it means that Republicans are from Mars and Democrats are from Venus—that they’re millions of miles apart on all the most contentious issues of our time. 

Yet that’s false. In education, there’s a remarkable amount of consensus on what should be taught—whether the topic is the sins of America’s past or the virtues of our founding documents. As More in Common wrote, “Both Democrats and Republicans alike grossly overestimate whether members of the opposing party hold extreme views.”

These findings are consistent with earlier findings that extreme perception gaps exist on issues involving race, sex, religion, and guns. The message is consistent and clear, our opponents are much less extreme than we think they are.

Why are we so wrong? As with any complex social phenomenon, there’s no single explanation. Media is certainly part of the answer. It turns out that “the more news people consume, the larger their perception gap.” The media is so efficient at highlighting extremism that it misses the morality and ideology of the vast majority of Americans.

But there’s another answer, one that’s much less comfortable than simply blaming the media (again) for (another) failure. I’d submit that a toxic combination of activism and apathy are poisoning American politics. 

To understand what I mean, I want to remind you about another concept I’ve discussed a few times, called Miles’s Law: Where you stand depends on where you sit. Originally developed to discuss human behavior in bureaucracies, it reflects something fundamental about human nature. Our friendships, our communities, and our experiences have enormous influence over our ideology and outlook. 

So why single out activism and apathy? The activists represent the small minority of Americans who focus intensely on politics. A very small minority do this professionally; a somewhat larger group are political hobbyists. But members of both groups often consider politics their purpose.

The apathetic are the broader majority—perhaps the better term is “exhausted majority”—of Americans who don’t spend much time thinking about issues. They might vote, and they care about the future of the country, but politics is distant from their daily lives, often because of a combination of alienation and sheer busyness. Who has time to think about politics when their daughter has soccer practice, their son is due at basketball camp, and their niece has a recital in two hours? 

So let’s imagine for a moment that you’re an activist. How does where you sit in that space dictate where you stand? I spent more than a decade in the activist community. I ran a civil liberties nonprofit (FIRE), and then I was a senior counsel at two Christian public interest law firms. I raised money. I testified before legislatures. I litigated in courtrooms across America.

What’s the experience like? First, you engage because you care. You see “your” issue as truly important. Certainly it’s not the only issue that matters, but you know that free speech, or abortion policy, or climate change, or school choice can deeply impact peoples’ lives, and you want to contribute to the health and well-being of your community. 

Next, you have to raise money. This can be terrifying. When I became president of FIRE, for example, I’d never raised a dime in my life. I didn’t know what I was doing, and I hated to make the ask. You quickly find out that you really have to sell your cause. You have to stand out.

There are smart ways to stand out, but there is also always an easy way—use fear, hyperbole, and rage. The pressure to move from, “There are many worthy causes, and this is one” to “PROTECT FREE SPEECH OR WATCH OUR NATION DIE” is intense. You’ll hear from experts who tell you that you have to rhetorically grab people by their lapels and shake their money out of them.

At the same time, it would be a mistake to say that this is all a grift (though some of it certainly is). In fact, if you put activists under a polygraph and ask them if they believe their own rhetoric, many of them would pass with flying colors. Why? A key reason relates to the social reality of the activist world.

First, unless activists intentionally maintain solid relationships with normal folks on the opposite side of the political spectrum, they soon find that when they interact with their ideological opposites, they’re interacting mainly with opposing activists, and opposing activists are just as intense as they are.

Again, this was my experience. When I was president of FIRE, we maintained a healthy, balanced perspective in part because our staff was ideologically split. Conservatives and progressives worked together to preserve individual liberty on campus. It was impossible to caricature “them” because you worked with “them” every day. It was a unique work environment.

But everything changed the instant I moved into Christian public interest law firms. While there were different flavors of conservatives on staff, we were largely united by both faith and ideology. Thus, our primary personal contact with progressives was with progressives who’d censored or silenced Christians and their lawyers. This was not a representative sample of the left-leaning population. 

To be clear, I worked with many folks who understood this and took proactive steps to avoid the kind of animosity and bitterness that constant ideological combat can cause. But again, just as the need to raise money puts a thumb on the radicalization scale, so does relentless exposure to opposing activists. 

Here’s one thing I can guarantee—every single person who encounters the far right or the far left has a tale to tell. They might face threats. They’ll certainly face vicious rhetoric. They may well have to fend off an effort to destroy their career and end their livelihood. 

And that ordeal helps generate the next dynamic—a tight bond of tribal brotherhood. When faced with a series of withering attacks, what do people do? They look for friends, and finding friends is often a matter of personal survival. To fight the fight, they need a band of brothers (and sisters). There is undeniable esprit de corps in becoming “we happy few” taking on an evil opposing force.

This helps explain the sometimes-extreme changes you’ll see in a person when they become (forgive me) “redpilled” or “woke.” They brushed up against the far left or the far right, encountered extreme vitriol, and ran into the arms of the few people who could understand their experience.

This also helps explain the sometimes-extreme vitriol you see directed against more moderate or dissenting members of your tribe. When confronting an alleged existential threat, you need unity, and dissent or disagreement can feel like betrayal. 

Let’s bring this back to the data. All of that heartwarming consensus I described above, where Republicans and Democrats are far less extreme than we tend to believe and agree on far more than we might think, completely disappears when it comes to the most-polarized “wings” of American life. 

The 14 percent of the American population that sits at either end of the spectrum (the 8 percent of “progressive activists” and the 6 percent of “devoted conservatives”) are twice as likely to view politics as a hobby, and they have profound differences. For example:

A full 97 percent of Progressive Activists agree the country needs to do more to acknowledge earlier wrongs, whereas just 9 percent of Devoted Conservatives agree. The wings are similarly divided as to whether “Lingering on the past prevents us from moving forward.” A full 94 percent of Devoted Conservatives but only 11 percent of Progressive Activists agree with this statement.

We’re caught in a vicious cycle. Radicals tend to alienate the majority—causing them to retreat from politics. After all, who needs that level of anger in their lives? At the same time, radicals tend to radicalize their targets and further radicalize each other. And because radicals are more energized and engaged than anybody else, they can’t help but exercise disproportionate influence in shaping our perceptions of the other side. 

So we’re left with a difficult bottom line. If you’re an activist, completely understandable social pressures push you into ideological and temperamental extremes. It’s hard to fund your work absent escalating rhetoric, encounters with opposing radical forces reaffirms your commitment to the cause, and the psychological cost of constant combat creates intensely-tribal comradery. 

If you’re more apathetic or disengaged, completely understandable social pressures push you to the sidelines. Even the smallest forays into public debate often result in a shocking backlash. Thus, you instantly experience a cost-benefit analysis. Do I want to end my relationship with a beloved aunt or uncle over an issue I can’t impact? Or do I choose discretion, decide to maintain the relationship, and move on? 

I describe this dynamic as the difference between the replies to my Tweets—which are full of invective and vicious insults—and my inbox, a private space where people share the challenges and difficulties of a deeply polarized times. Social media is an activist’s playground. A private email, by contrast, is a place where a person can feel free to express hesitance, misgivings, and doubt. 

The truth is that both the activists and the more apathetic (or, if you prefer, the wings and the exhausted majority) need each other. Sometimes we should be shaken from our slumber. An enormous amount of injustice is sustained by sheer inertia. At the same time, the existence of a reasonable majority should serve as a constant reminder that the world is not so split into competing radical camps, and there is still an opportunity to connect and persuade, to actually win people to your side through evidence and argument. 

There are signs that nature is healing. The exhausted majority has stirred itself in different times and in different political contests across the United States. An exhausted majority of San Francisco progressives recalled radicals in the city’s school board and D.A.’s office. An exhausted majority of voters rejected every single election-denying radical running for statewide office in a swing state in 2022. The audience for the most polarized news sites is diminishing

But for that healing to continue, more Americans need to become self-aware. The activists need to understand the social forces that fill them with rage, and the apathetic need to overcome the pressures that keep them disengaged. We simply cannot delegate our political and cultural engagement to the angriest wings of American life. They’ll drive us apart even when our differences are not that stark. 

One more thing …

Kristene DiMarco released my favorite album of 2022, and this is my favorite song from that album. It echoes the themes of my Christmas newsletter and the themes of today’s essay. It’s easy to presume we share Christ’s vision for our culture and our nation, but what if his vision is different? To ask the question from the song, “Would that be good enough for me?”

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