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Pluralism and Polarization - The Quest for a More Perfect Union

Jonathan A. Greenblatt is National Director of the Anti-Defamation League, having previously served in the White House as Special Assistant to President Obama and Director of the Office of Social Innovation and Civic Participation. You may follow him on Twitter @JGreenblattADL

IN The Creation of the American Republic, 1776–1787 (1969), celebrated historian Gordon S. Wood recounted a conversation between two founding fathers and future American presidents, James Madison and Thomas Jefferson. Commenting on the “blending of diverse views and clashing interests” that resulted in the American system of government, Madison told Jefferson that this was “nothing less than a miracle.”

The truth is that democracy is a messy business. The reason this is invariably so, Madison wrote in The Federalist Papers, is because the “latent causes of faction are […] sown in the nature of man.” He observed more than two centuries ago that

[the natural] zeal for different opinions concerning religion, concerning government, and many other points [have] divided mankind into parties, inflamed them with mutual animosity, and rendered them much more disposed to vex and oppress each other than to co-operate for their common good.

Since ancient times, history has been characterized by clashes of tribes and wars between nations over the simple fact of difference—in ideas and worldview, as well as of race, religion, and creed—to name but a few. This was true even of America’s Founders, whose vision formed the basis for the democratic freedoms that inspired countless others to model national movements on the principles of American democracy. In the earliest days of the United States, Madison and his peers came to blows over their ideas. Former Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton was famously killed by Aaron Burr, the sitting vice president, in a duel over a matter most indelible to American democracy—the defamation of Burr’s character in print. Thus, even with the creation of a democracy designed to channel the human tendency toward conflict into a more civil discourse, members of this generation of American political thinkers were often unable to resolve their differences with words alone.

The great tension within democracy—one system encompassing a great diversity of beliefs—has not lessened with time. Over the past hundred years, the emergence of a robust civil society that includes non-governmental organizations and social activists has helped to tilt the balance toward openness. But the struggles continues in an increasingly complex and fractured world.

As Thomas Paine, the great pamphleteer of the Founding era, aptly wrote, American independence would not have been worth noting had it just meant a separation from Britain. What was remarkable was that this separation was “accompanied by a revolution in the principles and practice of government.” First among these was that the legitimate basis for power was the people. And yet, at the time of the American Revolution, the principle of inclusive citizenship was not even close to being realized in practice.

It was tarnished from the outset by the enslavement of African peoples and their descendants. Indeed, at the outset, American citizenship was restricted-to white, property-holding males-and our Constitution perpetuated the evil of slavery. This economic model powered the growth of the country in its earliest days and simultaneously damaged the soul of American democracy. Yet the Founders’ breakthrough in political philosophy—the core idea that life and liberty are inalienable rights—would help to undermine the practice of slavery half a century later and again in the twentieth century, in the great struggles over that idea. With the expansion of American democracy through the suffrage and the civil rights movements, these inalienable rights were made to be not a privilege of identity, but an entitlement of every citizen.

Tearing Down Barriers
The struggle to overcome difference has not only been predicated on issues of race. Differences over faith have been a source of unfathomable bloodshed throughout human history, including in Europe. Centuries of war were perpetuated by religious animosity. In the United States, too, faith has been a source of great tension. The separation of church and state, and the freedom of religious expression embodied in the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, were radical ideas in their time. In fact, they emerged from the reality of a multi-sectarian society. This diversity invariably became a beacon that attracted immigrants from all corners of the earth—individuals and families often fleeing religious intolerance.

Yet again, there were tensions as the country attempted to navigate the complexity of the extraordinary American experiment in inclusivity. For example, anti-immigrant movements have ebbed and flowed, typically rising up in reaction to succeeding waves of newcomers that clamored for entry. These nativist groups railed against the metaphorical and literal openness of American society, attempting to close the doors on those whose practice of worship often differed from the predominant way of life.


The Anti-Defamation League (ADL) was created during a time of such tension. Founded in 1913—at a moment in history when Jews faced a steep set of cultural challenges and widespread discrimination—ADL sought to tear down barriers and enable Jews, as well as other Americans, to enjoy the fruits of an open society. As codified in its founding charter, ADL sought to “fight the defamation of the Jewish people […] and secure justice and fair treatment for all.” Such work has motivated its advocacy on behalf of Jews, but also undergirded its participation in the struggle for civil rights for African-Americans; for its advocacy on behalf of immigrants and refugees; in the campaign today to ensure the right to vote for all Americans; and in the campaign for legal and cultural equality for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) citizens.

This diverse agenda has changed over the decades, as different issues have taken center stage in the public conversation. Yet ADL’s endeavors have consistently been rooted in the promise and principles of democracy. The work to expand the inclusiveness and resilience of American democracy will be even more important in the time ahead, as our sense of national identity is challenged and refreshed by new generations and modern challenges.

ADL has always attempted to balance the particularism of its advocacy with the universalism of its ideals. Its pioneering work has demonstrated that these forces complement rather than contradict each other. Confronting Anti-Semitism has been at the heart of this work, because it represents a habit of thinking that is poisonous to a democratic society ostensibly built on pillars of reason and inclusion. Allowed to thrive, anti-Semitism does violence to the very fabric of democracy, as demonstrated by the cataclysm of the Shoah in modern Europe.

As President George Washington wrote to the Jews of Newport Rhode Island in 1790—the United States could give “bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance.” Indeed, the commitment to the protection of minorities and their civil rights inevitably was not just a matter of principle—but part and parcel of the struggle against anti-Semitism.

ADL did not take this path alone. The organization labored alongside many others who shared a desire to transform that ideal of inclusivity into a new reality. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. perhaps best embodied this orientation. He was bitterly acquainted with the reality of American failings, yet could appeal to the earnest ambitions of Americans of all persuasions. Dr. King’s core premise was that the great injustices inherent in the American system were in fact a distortion of the national character that the Founders sought to forge. This was the essential core of the landmark address he delivered at the end of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. As he said from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in August 1963, his dreams were “deeply rooted in the American dream.” His optimism linked him directly back to the hopes of the drafters of the Constitution—however flawed their actual manifestation of those ideals.

Since the days of Dr. King, prejudices such as anti-Semitism and racism have diminished in the public sphere, though they still remain. Although great challenges persist, we have undeniably become a more inclusive and tolerant society, in which Jews and people of all faiths and fortunes coexist with less friction than at earlier points in American history. Yet even the most disengaged bystander can observe the signs heralding an impending crisis.

Backlash and Polarization
As our society becomes both more pluralistic and inclusive, at the same time we are witnessing an alarming increase in polarization and incivility, trends that are infecting our political and public life. America is undergoing great changes and, as with any social change, we see elements of backlash.

This animus partially stems from those discontented with a changing America. Some outwardly lament “losing their country”—an expression of dissatisfaction with the distribution of power and privilege, the breakdown of patriarchal systems, and racial stereotypes.

We see this unfolding in the vitriol infecting various forms of mass media. It can be found on the airwaves of talk radio; in the columns and op-ed pages of print media; in the incessant hyperbole of cable news programs; and in the news feeds and Twitter streams. Debate often originates from a legitimate effort to understand an issue and make sense of a modern phenomenon like immigration or terrorism. However, all too often it degenerates into empty rhetoric and hateful speech that is not designed to find common ground, but simply to deepen existing divisions.

As we enter the cycle of a presidential election, we see such rhetoric ratcheting up. If history teaches us anything, it is that political leaders who eschew policy recommendations rooted in fact and resort instead to sweeping generalizations unmoored from reality, can have wide appeal. They often represent themselves as “outsiders” and, to some degree, speak for those who cannot understand an increasingly dynamic and diverse society.

There are, of course, other factors that contribute to the prevailing sense of polarization and incivility. The impact of globalization and the revolution of the internet and social media have quickened the exchange of information and the pace of human interaction, encouraging a rapid response reflex that can degrade our tradition of civil discourse. Moreover, the “filter bubble” has constricted the breadth of our interactions, mainly to those who hold the same views. In many ways twenty-first-century democracy is still making sense of these profound technological changes. And, along with technology, the paralyzing partisanship in our governing bodies deepens these divisions. This trend has been fueled in large part by the unrestricted sums of money supporting political candidates, and issues that are a feature of our time—the greatest concentration of wealth in America since the Gilded Age.

It means that the fundamental values of America—the meaning of liberty and justice for all—will have to be reasserted and reinterpreted once again. This is vital for Americans, first and foremost. But the implications are broader than just America. As we watch Europe struggle to absorb a massive refugee flow, it reminds us that American inclusivness must be perfected so that we might be a guide as the world endeavors to meet this challenge. The ability of the American people to navigate our own differences has in the past been the measure on which democracy was judged. This is because, apart from American military and economic strength, the real power undergirding American leadership in the world derives from the power of our example. It is the idea for which America stands, and upon which it rests its mantle of leadership: the democratic idea.

As ADL has endeavored with others towards a more equitable and tolerant society, we are prepared to do the same in the coming years by employing a simple approach: to stand up not only for rights of one’s own group but to rise to the challenge of standing up for the rights of others when they are trampled upon. This belief has been a fundamental driver energizing much of ADL’s advocacy over the decades.

Our increasingly diverse democracy can only thrive amidst polarization and incivility if everyone sees themselves as responsible for the other. A search for common values and shared interests must accompany the respect for difference. We need a national conversation that does not demand purity or unanimity but that seeks to cultivate pluralism and unity.

The potential for equality and inclusiveness embedded in our founding vision can guide us toward new ways appropriate to new times.

However, this will not happen if we rely solely on human nature or simply fetishize our founding documents without examining the great contradictions and deep wounds in our national history. We can expect that this pursuit will be led by the next generation of civil revolutionaries and social entrepreneurs who innovate for equality and inclusivity. They will employ modern tools to win the new battles for democracy of the twenty-first century.

The scale of the challenge demands that non-governmental actors such as ADL, which are an essential part of the democratic landscape, rise to the occasion. ADL will do so-by a rededication to its mission to stop the defamation of the Jewish people; to fight prejudice through education; and through advocacy to protect the rights of minorities. 

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