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To a packed house at Benedictine College in Atchison, Kansas, popular author, columnist and podcast host David French sought to explain the reasons for the nation’s political divide and suggested possible solutions.
He spoke Sept. 27 as the kickoff speaker for the new Center for Constitutional Liberty. His speech, “The Constitutional Cure for American Division,” was very timely, coming on the heals of an impeachment inquiry by U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
French explained that animosity and political division in the United States have been heightened to potentially dangerous levels, to the point that hatred for each other has been spiking among the average citizens of the country, not just those in politics.
“Animosity will defeat liberty,” he warned. “So we have to be the instruments of the society we want to create. We’re called to defend liberty and we’re called to fellowship.”
How did the country get to this point?
The Center for Constitutional Liberty at Benedictine College promotes and deepens understanding of the founding principles of America — constitutionalism, self-government, individual liberty and civic virtue.
French explained that the level of animosity in the United States has been raised by three factors, the decades long “Big Sort,” social media, and the law of group polarization.
French is the author or co-author of several books, including the No. 1 New York Times bestselling Rise of ISIS: A Threat We Can’t Ignore. His next book, The Great American Divorce, will be published by St. Martin’s Press later this year.
“The law of group polarization says that when people of like minds gather, they get more extreme,” French explained. “That means you’re creating your own feedback loops where you’re growing more and more convinced of the rightness of your cause and your cause becomes, often, more extreme over time.”
He said group polarization has been intensified by the “Big Sort,” a decades-long social phenomenon where people have been slowly gravitating to like-minded enclaves. Voting records in 2016 clearly show that major urban centers like New York City, Los Angeles and San Francisco have almost no political diversity.
Finally, he said social media has given voices of extremism a platform.
“(Social media) are creating a dynamic where the most politically engaged citizens are the most wrong about their political opponents’ beliefs,” he said, quoting a Hidden Tribes of America study. “The people who consume the most social media tend to overestimate the extremism of their political opponents by 20 to 25 points.”
What can we do?
French is a graduate of Harvard Law School and was a lecturer at Cornell University. He has fought for religious freedom as a senior counsel for the American Center for Law and Justice and the Alliance Defending Freedom.
French pointed to two historic documents, The Federalist Papers and the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. He said The Federalist Papers addressed the question of how bitterly divided people can live together, a situation facing the young country as it tried to pull the original colonies into a single entity. The documents laid out the argument that people were motivated by animosity and there were two ways to deal with it. The government and the citizens could either attempt to deal with the cause, which means suppressing one point of view and leads to conflict, or they could protect liberty for everyone and let multiple groups flourish, with no group becoming powerful enough to dominate the others.
The First Amendment guarantees certain freedoms and establishes the framework to protect liberty.
“It is one of the greatest single sentences ever written in the history of humanity,” said French. “It is one sentence that says both that you, as an individual, and us, as a collective group of people, are going to be free enough in this country to flourish, to advance our ideas, and have a hope for change.”
He said that we already have the means to deal with the animosity in the midst of negative polarization thanks to these documents.
“We have the means to deal with this by protecting not just our own liberty but the liberty of others so that many flowers can bloom, as opposed to seeking to stamp out all other flowers and leave only one remaining,” he said.