Civic Virtue Education as an Antidote to Political Polarization
Postdoctoral Fellow, Virtues & Vocations
Center for Social Concerns
University of Notre Dame
Growing up, I had a lot of questions. As a toddler, I asked all the usual “why” questions, and as I got older, my questions became ever more abstract. My mother wasn’t surprised when I eventually decided to study philosophy. I also learned that there were certain questions that you didn’t ask. In particular, I learned the old adage, “Never discuss religion or politics in polite company.” I imbibed the conventional wisdom that, if you want to get along and peacefully coexist, you shouldn’t talk about controversial issues, and it was a sign of maturity to avoid discussing these topics. After all, talking about who you’re voting for, or the latest Supreme Court decision, is more likely to result in flared tempers and hurt feelings than it is in productive conversations. So even though I had a lot of questions, I learned that some questions were better left unasked.
I have now come to question this traditional thinking. Although the wisdom of this advice may seem obvious, avoiding political conversations has not helped us get along and peacefully coexist. In fact, it seems to have made things worse. Americans strongly distrust those who vote for the other party, and political polarization is as strong in the United States as anywhere in the world. In the summer of 2020, 76% of Republicans thought that the U.S. government was doing a good job dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic, while only 29% of Democrats agreed. Across the nations surveyed, this was the largest such divide. Even though a number of Americans are concerned about increasing partisanship and distrust, the crisis shows no sign of abating, as younger generations are even more likely to harbor attitudes of distrust towards their fellow citizens. Never discussing politics has made us enemies more than it has made us friends.
How did this happen? Why, when we avoided making things political, did we become more polarized than ever? As it turns out, avoiding a political conversation might help us evade conflict in the short term, but it also deprives us of an opportunity to grow in the civic virtues. Like all habits, the virtues take practice, and living in a diverse ideological community provides the perfect training grounds. Having challenging conversations, especially those with whom we disagree, allows us to practice being humble and open-minded, realizing that we all have a lot to learn. Supporting our political opponents in their day-to-day lives gives us an opportunity to practice justice, toleration, and generosity, doing what is right by focusing on the things that we have in common instead of what divides us. Maybe tackling those hard conversations is more important for getting along and peacefully coexisting than we realized.
Before it was considered prudent to avoid political conversations, the conventional wisdom was that it was important to build the civic virtues. America’s founders recognized that virtuous citizens are essential for a healthy democracy. In George Washington’s Farewell address as President, he noted that “virtue or morality is a necessary spring of popular government,” and James Madison argued that “to suppose that any form of government will secure liberty or happiness without any virtue in the people, is a chimerical idea.” In a time of great political upheaval, it was much more obvious that it is impossible to have virtuous self-government if those involved are not themselves virtuous. But if we, as a society, have mostly been avoiding the hard work of inculcating the civic virtues, then where should we start?
An obvious place to start fighting the battle against political polarization is at the level of higher education, as colleges and universities are particularly well-situated to help their students build the civic virtues. Not only is it part of the mission of higher education to prepare students for democratic citizenship, but as communities that facilitate the exchange of ideas and foster intellectual curiosity, colleges and universities have the chance to do more than simply passing on the required content knowledge. Using the classroom as a place for healthy dialogue and debate, colleges and universities can provide students with opportunities to grow in toleration, open-mindedness, and intellectual humility. Encouraging students to take on projects beyond the classroom, professors can help students pursue initiatives that emphasize justice and civic engagement. I am encouraged by projects like Virtues and Vocations that are taking the lead in emphasizing the importance of character formation in higher education. Maybe one day, the conventional wisdom will be that it is a sign of maturity not to avoid discussing difficult issues, but to be able to have healthy conversations about religion and politics.
“Partisan Antipathy: More Intense, More Personal,” Pew Research Center, October 10, 2019, https://www.pewresearch.org/politics/2019/10/10/partisan-antipathy-more-intense-more-personal/
“America is Exceptional in the Nature of its Political Divide,” Pew Research Center, November 13, 2020, https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2020/11/13/america-is-exceptional-in-the-nature-of-its-political-divide/
“Trust and Distrust in America,” Pew Research Center, July 22, 2019, https://www.pewresearch.org/politics/2019/07/22/trust-and-distrust-in-america/