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'This Is One Of The Most Challenging Moments In American History': American Partisan Divide At Worst Point In History

STEVE GOLDSTEIN: For more than a month, the final numbers had indicated Joe Biden had won the presidential race, but millions of Americans and hundreds of Republican elected officials still haven't been willing to refer to Biden as president-elect. And some of the expressions against that result have been hostile and full of venom with President [Donald] Trump and a number of his most passionate supporters leading the pack. Biden says one of his most important goals is to bring Americans back together to a point where we can disagree with each other about policies rather than yelling and accusing each other of character flaws or a lack of patriotism. The National Institute for Civil Discourse (NICD) — based in Washington, D.C., and under the University of Arizona umbrella — has been working on that for nearly a decade. And its executive director, Keith Allred, joins me. Keith, how would you characterize our current situation in the U.S. when it comes to having civil discourse?

KEITH ALLRED: I don't think there's any doubt, Steve, that this is one of the most challenging moments in American history at the level of civil discourse and the level of partisan divisions. We've been more deeply divided as a country before — we had a civil war, and I think during the Vietnam War and civil rights movement, we were more deeply divided. What's unique about our age is that these cut so cleanly along partisan lines. In those earlier conflicts, those kind of crossed partisan lines. So the unique challenge we have is that everything has been sucked into the difference between Republicans and Democrats and become so tribal and toxic — and that that really is the worst in American history right now. Give you one piece of data on that. An analysis of the more than 13 million roll call votes cast in Congress since 1789 shows that congressional voting is along in the most purely party lines in American history in 230 years. So this this really is a substantial challenge that's been building for about 40 years now. So we can — you know, the last month since the election, as you point out, have been particularly challenging. But this has been a trend that has been building for about 40 years of increasing hyper-partisanship.

GOLDSTEIN: Well, Keith, how much has the — I put this sort of in quotes — the "scourge of social media" affected that because, you know, many of us will say it's a lot easier to go on and say something snarky or worse than that when it's just on your computer or your smartphone and you never actually have to come face to face with, with someone or have try to have a civil conversation with them.

ALLRED: Undoubtedly, social media has accelerated these trends and amplified them. And I think you put your finger, too, on one of the primary mechanisms for that is that there's this degree of anon — anonymity or not being face to face that kind of unleashes some of our worst instincts there. And it's also the, the ability to kind of find like-minded people, right? It's really accelerated that. So you can kind of get in a social media echo chamber there. But it is still important to remember as you're as you're looking at your social media feed, the extremes post more politically, and those political posts are more extreme than most of us are, so they, they create an outsized impression and, and suggest that we are more divided and more uncivil than we really are. That's a minority of people who are, you know, kind of flaming out on, on Facebook or Twitter.

GOLDSTEIN: You mentioned that it seems as though our society, our communities generally agree on more issues, certainly, than it looks like based on what we see when it comes to our elected officials. How much of that does seep down, though, whether it's from social media, whether it's from FOX, MSNBC, CNN or whatever it is, the saturation point of the 24/7 news cycle, which in a lot of ways has turned into 24/7 opinion cycle?

ALLRED: Yeah, I don't think there's any doubt. It absolutely does influence us. It tends to be, in a way, a somewhat limited set of issues. There's a set of highly polarized issues the elected officials are talking a lot about and using as a club to beat up on the other side with and to mobilize their base. But that's a fairly limited set of issues. There's a lot of other issues out there that don't fit neatly into the partisan buckets that really matter, or kind of kitchen table issues. Let me give you one of the most compelling examples of that for us at NICD. That's the issue of surprise medical billing. So this is the circumstance where you can be treated by an out-of-network provider without your knowledge or consent. And they can and do charge you about anything they want to, and you're legally obligated to it. There are currently five bipartisan bills in the Congress. There is virtually no partisan divide over the need to end surprise medical billing, and there's no partisan divide about the mechanism for ending it. Now, there's a, quite a debate going on about what the right mechanism for ending it is. But it's not, it doesn't divide along partisan lines. There's an issue that really matters on which there's a lot of common ground, and you don't see elected officials talking about it. You don't see the, you know, the opinion shows on cable news talking about it because it's, it's not useful politically for piquing up on the other side now, but it matters to everyday Americans. And so for those issues that the politicians are choosing to use as clubs, they really do influence the everyday Americans. And, and so they get mobilized in just the way the politicians are trying to do and make it very hard to make any progress on those issues.

GOLDSTEIN: People will say that even if they were disturbed by President Trump's behavior and his, his words, that he didn't start this. And as you mentioned, the downturn in civil discourse may be going on for decades. But is there something that with someone like him who was so dramatic and represents  so dramatic a change that a quote unquote "fever" will pass and that maybe things will calm down a little bit? Or without organizations like yours, are we at, in some ways kind of a point of no return?

ALLRED: It's a very good question, Steve, and it's one I'm asking myself. And I don't think we know the answer. I think we are entering a very interesting time. And is this going to be a turning, a closing of one chapter and the beginning of a new one? Are we going to pivot more towards reaching out and across the divide in more productive ways? You can certainly see some signs for hope of that. Clearly, in the presidential election, that was the choice that Americans made. So that, to me, I interpret those results as less of a partisan result and more of a — and you look at the combined congressional presidential vote. To me, that signals that Americans want us to engage those divides more productively.

GOLDSTEIN: That is Keith Allred. He is executive director of the National Institute for Civil Discourse in Washington, D.C., which is under the umbrella of the University of Arizona. Keith, thanks so much for the time and take care.

ALLRED: Thank you, Steve. Thanks for having me.

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Steve Goldstein was a host at KJZZ from 1997 to 2022.