- - Tuesday, May 28, 2019

Political polarization in the age of Trump is being fueled in no small way by the myths liberals and conservatives tell about themselves.

Instances of egregious hypocrisy notwithstanding, these myths weren’t always myths. More or less, liberals stood for tolerance and equality, and conservatives were committed to defending institutional norms and procedures. But these days, in their ideological zeal and push to deprive each other of political power at any cost, conservatives and liberals are routinely acting in ways that contradict their traditional values.

Liberals, for example, have weaponized political correctness and identity politics to the point that they have actually grown intolerant of dissenting views and even whole groups of people. And in cultishly subordinating themselves to an aspiring dictator, conservatives are more invested in fascism than democracy.

Your average liberal and conservative, however, are likely to tell you that they’re as committed to their core values as they’ve always been, if not more so. Liberals see themselves as more compassionate and dedicated to social justice than ever (hence, for example, their obsession with trigger warnings, microaggressions and safe spaces and their merciless shaming of people who don’t conform to their agenda). Conservatives are certain they’re restoring what’s fundamentally right about America (hence the “again” in MAGA), even as the leader of their movement flouts constitutional order whenever it serves his interest.

The underlying problem with this disconnect — what lends itself to the extremism of our times — is that it has become glaringly apparent to the other side and is in turn used to justify and ignore one’s own indiscipline and hypocrisy.

How can you say we lack compassion when you minimize the concerns of the white working class? How can you say we lack tolerance when you voted for a racist fear monger? How can you claim to care about corruption when you voted for Hillary Clinton? How can you stand for greater plurality when you put people into boxes and obsess over differences? How can you claim to be a freedom-loving patriot when you excuse Russia’s meddling in our elections?

It’s no wonder “fake” has become our favorite way to describe each other. Fox, Huffington Post and MSNBC, all fake. The Mueller report, fake. President Trump’s fake news claims, fake. Liberals and conservatives accuse each other of living in an alternate — i.e. fake — bubble.

Calling out the fakeness, the hypocrisy, has virtually become an industry. Late-night hosts devote chunks of their monologues to it — and see their ratings slip when they don’t. Rachel Maddow and Sean Hannity and Tucker Carlson and Chris Hayes have grown their followings largely on their ability to call out the other side’s hypocrisy. Everyday Americans flock to social media and comment boards to do the same.

So that we end up missing what we ourselves have become. How can we be so bad? Look at what they’re doing. We’re on the right side of history, all that stands between America and a return to the Dark Ages, not realizing how we are feeding our cult(ure) of extremism.

The result is more resentment, more hypocrisy and more outrage — or what Steven Pinker calls “moralistic condemnation of designated enemies.”

To be sure, some of what one sees in our enemies is worth opposing; preserving our democracy may in fact depend on it. But it will also depend on responding to our political crisis in ways that correspond with our core democratic values, rather than in ways that contradict them and perpetuate the vicious cycle of rationalizations liberals and conservatives in their groupthink are now fully invested in.

Ending the hypocrisy will not by itself end our age of contempt. It will allow us to be taken a little more seriously, if not with our political opponents than the large number of Americans who are fed up with the liberal and conservative status quo. And it will, above all, give less ammunition to our political opponents, and that’s as good a place to start as any toward a more reasonable future.

• Ioannis Gatsiounis has reported on social and political issues around the world.

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