Political Enemies

by Scott F. Aikin and Robert B. Talisse

In his victory speech President-elect Joe Biden declared that “this is the time to heal America,” urging citizens to “come together,” “give each other a chance,” and “stop treating opponents as enemies.” He added that partisanship “is not due to some mysterious force,” but is rather “a choice we make.” To be sure, that partisanship is a choice doesn’t mean it’s easily overcome. So, Biden offered a plan. He proposed that we “see each other again” and “listen to each other again.”

In calling for the healing of our partisan divisions, Biden struck a popular note. Americans across the spectrum tend to agree that our politics has become dangerously toxic and uncivil. We say we want more compromise, civility, and cooperation in politics; however, it seems we demand that compromise come strictly from our political opponents. Oddly, lamenting partisan division is itself an expression of our animosity towards the other side. That is, the distance we see between ourselves and our political others is perceived as their distance from our ideas, their resistance and recalcitrance to our thoughts. Consequently, even though Republican and Democratic citizens generally are no more divided over central public policy issues than they were forty years ago, we are more partisan than ever in that we are more inclined to regard our partisan opponents as untrustworthy, dishonest, unpatriotic, and threatening.

In other words, partisan division is a matter of our negative feelings towards the other side, rather than disagreements over political ideas. Perhaps unsurprisingly, citizens’ political behavior – voting, donating, volunteering, and so on – is now more driven by animosity for the opposing party than by commitment to the ideals of our own.

This animosity is tied to a range of phenomena which have rendered our partisan identities central to our overall self-understandings. In the United States, liberalism and conservatism are distinct lifestyles, with partisan identity serving as the “hyper-identity” that organizes all of the other aspects of our lives, from our consumption habits to our religious affiliations and views about family and child-rearing. As we grow to see our partisan rivals as living strange lives that differ from our own, we come eventually to see their lives as alien and eventually degenerate. Seeing them in this way, we project on to them exaggerated vices, including close-mindedness, untrustworthiness, lack of patriotism, dishonesty, and general immortality. From there, we then infer a vast divide over democracy itself, with no common ground or basis for cooperation. What is shared government with those who appear to be moral aliens?

Biden’s recipe for political healing is thus fraught.

Our trouble is not that we are not listening to or “seeing” each other. Rather, the problem is that when citizens look and listen, all they can see in their opposition is depravity and duplicity. Indeed, things are worse than that. Some research shows that even momentary exposure to political messages that slightly oppose our own typically intensifies animosity towards rivals. And when opponents attempt to correct us, we commonly double-down and escalate. So when Twitter marks a Trump tweet as misleading, Republicans grow more inclined to believe it, while Democrats grow less inclined; fact-checks of Trump’s tweets amplify divisions.

Listening can heal only when we are able to trust one another, to understand what others are saying as something other than a pitch, trick, insult, or con. As things stand, the requisite social trust has been eroded. Citizens are increasingly inclined to see only their co-partisans as adequately capable of proper citizenship, and thus they are more intensely accepting of the idea that those on the other side are fundamentally divested from democracy. And from good-faith reasoning altogether; the temptation to see others as only engaging in sham reasoning is too tempting under these conditions. Consequently, citizens are right to ask why they should strive to rehabilitate democratic relations with their partisan foes. Why listen to someone who’s unwilling to give you a fair hearing or who reasons in ways that only are only appearances of arguments? Why try to “heal” when the other side is merely pretending to care about democracy?

The real trouble comes once we realize that we’re in a standoff. Each side sees the other as divested from democracy, merely giving lip service to its ideals so that it can eventually replace democracy with something else. And each side sees itself as fully warranted in this assessment of the other. Moreover, any attempt by those on one side to reason with the other is received with suspicion, an attempt to disguise antidemocracy as democracy. In short, against the backdrop of severely eroded trust, we are warranted in treating our political opponents as enemies.

Reestablishing trust in one another is no easy task. And at present, it’s not clear how we can even begin. President Trump continues to assert, without evidence, that the 2020 presidential election was corrupt, but that he somehow still won reelection. Following him, 76% of Republican citizens baselessly reject the election result and some Republicans in Congress apparently intend to challenge Biden’s victory in the January 6th session where the Electoral College votes are counted.

This dispute over the election results is not simply another point of political disagreement among Republicans and Democrats. It is not the kind of difference that can be addressed by listening to one another in the democratic spirit of seeing our partisan rivals as opponents but nonetheless not enemies. It is rather an instance where a large segment of a major US political party has affirmed, without evidence, that our democracy is fundamentally fraudulent. We cannot employ the tools of democratic citizenship – Biden’s prescribed modes of listening, hearing, and seeing each other – to repair relations between democratic citizens and those who content baselessly that our democracy is a sham. Those two camps can only be political enemies.