Sunday, October 3, 2021
On Thursday, the University of Virginia released the results
of a survey that offers important but jarring insights. Among the findings:
- 41% of Biden voters and 52% of Trump voters at least somewhat agree that red states / blue states should secede from the union to form their own separate country.
- 46% of Biden voters and 44% of Trump voters at least somewhat agree that it would be better for America if whoever is President could take needed actions without being constrained by Congress or the courts.
- 62% of Biden voters and 82% of Trump voters at least somewhat agree that “our country needs a powerful leader in order to destroy the radical and immoral currents prevailing in society today.”
- 56% of Biden voters at least somewhat agree that there’s no real difference between Republicans and Fascists, and 76% of Trump voters at least somewhat agree that there’s no real difference between Democrats and Socialists.
- 75% of Biden voters and 78% of Trump voters at least somewhat agree that Americans who strongly support the opposing party have become “a clear and present danger to the American way of life.”
- 80% of Biden voters and 84% of Trump voters at least somewhat agree that elected officials from the opposing party are a “clear and present danger to American democracy.”
These numbers should be deeply concerning. The past two years have underscored an unpleasant reality: civilization is thin. The rule of law is a project that each generation must choose to embrace, and that project is dependent on trust. If those who disagree with me politically are a clear and present danger to my way of life, an ongoing commitment to build relationships across difference seems quaintly out of touch at best. And if my opponents are not just wrong, but evil, then the emerging bipartisan trend of protesting at the homes of judges and elected officials is not a cause for worry, but a necessary example of our obligation to oppose existential threats to our democracy by any means necessary.
If we prioritize debating contested issues in ways that reflect mutual respect, we stand accused of dangerously elevating form over substance. After all, we’re not dealing with the Democrats / Republicans of past eras – we’re dealing with Socialists / Fascists! We learned our lesson about dealing with these people in The Cold War / World War II: brute force is the only path forward. Once we’ve eliminated the existential threat, we can get back to building relationships across difference.
For those of us who are law professors, with this level of mutual antipathy so prevalent in American society, how are we supposed to go about preparing our students to flourish? It’s not that all of our students fall neatly into these warring camps – many do not. But they’re all being formed against the backdrop of these warring camps. Many of our students have no interest signing up for an all-out red-versus-blue battle, but they know they might easily be drawn into the daily skirmishes if they say something that can signal membership in the opposing camp, whether they intend to or not. Their understandable response is to disengage, pull back, and remain silent about issues that matter greatly to our shared future. This withdrawal precludes the opportunity for deeper relationships and new perspectives.
I spend a lot of time talking about these issues in my role as a dean, not only because I want my law school to be a strong, welcoming, and diverse community in which our students can flourish, but because our willingness or unwillingness to build relationships with those whose ideas we oppose is a powerful harbinger of what is to come for our world.
The new poll results should not be a discouragement, but a reminder: we are not audience members, passively observing the state of our country. We are all active participants, and we need to listen, learn, and lean in. We must model what it means to disagree vigorously within relationship, not as a precondition to relationship. Will these individual efforts, standing alone, heal the fracturing that has accelerated dramatically in our nation in recent years? Of course not, so let’s call it what it is: a good place to start.