Mending America’s Political Divide: People Over Partisan Politics
René H. Levy
USA Peoplehood Press (2020)
Reviewed by Marjorine Castillo for Reader Views (03/21)
René H. Levy’s book, “Mending America’s Political Divide: People Over Partisan Politics,” is a great book to read if you are interested in understanding why politics in the US have become so polarized, regardless of your political affiliation or lack of. Levy writes clearly and makes the historical and research material accessible to a wide audience. The book provides a good overview of sociohistorical factors that have led to the decline in empathy and the loss of a sense of national communalism. It delves into neuroscience research that explains biological, genetic, and neurological influences on political behavior. He offers a solution to encourage logical thinking and compassion towards those that have opposing political views. I believe this is a timely book to make sense of the current sociopolitical climate and could serve the great purpose of helping us proactively work towards healing the political divide in our nation.
In the first part of the book, Levy explains how the increasing income inequality between the rich and poor, increased cost and lack of access to education, families losing homes due to the housing crisis, the replacement of American workforce with foreign labor, and the rising costs of pharmaceuticals due to company greed have left Americans feeling victimized. This sense of injustice, coupled with cultural wars, anti-Black racism, and religious anxiety among White Christians has led to loss of empathy for people opposing political views (i.e. tribal hate), and this political tribalism became more pronounced and hyperpolarized during the 2016 elections. He offers a preview of what he believes is a plan of action to overcome tribal hate in politics.
Levy takes a scientific approach to explain how the political divide plaguing America has been caused by the primitive behavior of tribal hate. He cites twin studies, brain studies, and other research that support genetic, biological, and neurological influences on political behaviors that reflect an “us versus them” tribal mentality. He further argues that all politics are moral and self-righteous and uses the Moral Foundations Theory to explain the six universal moral codes that people use; care/harm, fairness/cheating, loyalty/betrayal, authority/subversion, sanctity/degradation, and liberty/oppression. He explains how Democrats and Republicans use the six moral codes, they just apply it differently based on what issues are important to them, which often reveal contradicting values (e.g. advocating for the right to life in regards to abortion, but supporting capital punishment).
The last part of the book outlines his plan for mending the political divide in America by replacing tribalism hatred with constructive partisanship. He explains that most people are within the “exhausted majority” who do not hold the hyperpolarized views of those who promote hate. He discussed the influence of the internet and social media in manipulating the public to believe that most people have extreme views like the radical conservatives and liberals. Part of his plan of hope is to get people to choose people over politics to restore the integrity and respect that once existed. He offers ways to reflect on how to more empathic and backs up his claims with neuroscience research that shows how it is possible to do so. The four strategies he offers are (1) control the impulse to react in a hostile manner to opposing views, (2) develop empathy skills, self-awareness of own feelings, and radical listening, (3) learn to make sense of contradicting logical arguments, and (4) practice mutual responsibility and finding a middle ground.
Levy’s attempt to rectify the empathy deficit and tribal hate was commendable, but there were several issues with his arguments that are worth pointing. First, he frequently iterates that “America, on the other hand, is an evolved and tested democracy with citizens exhibiting a strong civic spirit that includes respectful and civil dialogue.” Levy has a romanticized view of American democracy and completely disregards the dark history of the US. The US was built off the destruction of the Native American populations and the backs of enslaved Africans, whom until recently, did not have the right to participate in the “strong civic spirit” of American politics. Therefore, the idea that this is an evolved and tested democracy negates the experiences of people who were historically excluded from the political process and were denied their humanity. I would have liked to read more about this because their silenced voices were excluded in this conceptualization of the “great” American politics.
I also believe the reason why people react so emotionally to politics is not just because of a “primitive instinct” of tribal hate, but because policies have real consequences. So, the idea that tribal hate might be a response to an unrealistic perceived “threat” is actually a reality for many groups continuously marginalized by American politics. For example, the deportation of undocumented migrants happened during the Obama administration, and Trump took it a step further by separating children from their families and confining them to the cages (that were built during the Obama administration). Thus, as much as Levy would want us to think logically and self-righteously about policies, it is hard to do so when the lives of people are being negatively impacted by these policies. The “illness” of tribal hate is not a just regression to the primitive instinct caused empathy loss, but rather symptoms of cumulative trauma that needs to be acknowledged and reconciled with. People need to have a basic understand of the real past of American democracy, its evolution, and who/what it was meant to protect in order to discuss how to move forward.
Lastly, although the neuroscience research corroborating tribal hate is interesting, I think Levy overemphasizes the relationship between genetic factors and political behaviors and he fails to consider how social factors interacts with genetic factors. For example, he mentions that twin studies suggests that 60% of voting turnout was due to genetic factors, but also mentions how parental turnout is one of the strongest predictors. In his view, this implies the genetic transmission of voting behavior, but he should consider that parents might be modeling this behavior to their children instead of it being genetic transmission. Also, studies use identical or fraternal twins, but would findings be similar if the control group was non-twins’ siblings? Anecdotally, I have met twins who are completely different from each other even though they were raised in the same environment, and non-twin siblings who are very similar. How do we know that the level of genetic variation is not similar for non-twin siblings if we don’t include them in the studies?
Neurological sciences, like every field, has many methodological limitations that seem to be glanced over in this book for the purpose of proving a point. I suggest the following article to learn more about limitations of neuroscience research: Bessant, J. (2008). Hard wired for risk: Neurological science, ‘the adolescent brain’ and developmental theory. Journal of Youth Studies, 11(3), 347–360. Even though I had issues with the way the information was presented, I still think it is a useful aspect of the book because it provides information about the potential link between genes and behaviors, but I would just be cautious about misrepresenting the relationship in such simplistic terms and not considering the role of environment on genetics. Political behavior is much more complex than it seems and a comprehensive overview of such would have been a stronger argument.
Taken together, the overall message of the book about the need to be more empathetic, logically think about how the media tries to manipulate us, and work towards repairing relationships is a message that resonates with me. As a member of the exhausted majority, I believe our politics have been become so extreme to the point we do not listen to each other or work towards a common goal. I think this is harder said than done, given the media’s role in perpetuating the cycle of hostility and hatred towards each other. But I do think that if we do not give power to the radical voices and we begin to practice the four steps outlined in the book, some change may come, albeit it may be slow change. It does give me some hope that the exhausted majority might come together to take control of the narrative and work towards better political conditions.
Additionally, contextualizing contemporary American politics through its history can give us a better understanding of how to have these difficult conversations. Another really important aspect he points out is the inherent contradictions in our beliefs and the need to reflect more on our moral codes and how it affects others. Acknowledging the contradictions in our own beliefs might open the door to understanding the humanity in others, and hopefully a more empathic society.