National column: Climbing out of our bunkers

As the parties start to reflect the polarization of the country can other institutions rise to positions of social and political leadership? asks Michael Gerson.

From “The Catalyst”

In an interview with The Catalyst: A Journal of Ideas from the Bush Institute, Michael Gerson, syndicated columnist for the Washington Post and former speech writer for President George W. Bush addresses nationalism and restoring civil discourse.

Question: How do we create opportunities for people to climb out of their bunkers and have more civil discourse?

Gerson: Let’s talk about the problems first, and there are plenty. What’s going on in the Republican Party is that, in some ways, it has ceased to be a center-right party. It now is an ideology that is more nationalist, nativist, protectionist and isolationist. We don’t know how far the administration will go in these areas, but that is the basic orientation.

At the same time, the Democratic Party may go left, populist left. You could foresee a circumstance where there would be no center-right party and no center-left party.

As the parties pull away and start to reflect the polarization of the country, which has increased over the years, the question is, can institutions other than the parties rise to positions of social and political leadership?

Q: What kind of institutions are you thinking about?

Gerson: First of all, religious institutions should be involved in that kind of effort. Sometimes they’re not.

Institutions with a more academic and policy focus need to rise as well. And there is an individual element to this. We need an element of outreach that says, the people I surround myself with should not be people who are exactly like me. That’s actually a source of rich life, but it also is a source of reconciliation, including racial and class reconciliation.

A lot of forces are driving us apart and we need some institutions that start pulling us together.

Q: “Fear of the other” seems pretty strong these days. From your reporting, what is the cause of that fear?

Gerson: Some of it does have an economic root. In the United States, Robert Putnam estimates that maybe a third of American workers do not have the skills and social capital to compete in a modern economy. That is a massive problem. It has a social and political expression for people who have not had an increase in their take-home pay in a long time and in parts of the country where the collapse of the blue-collar economy has ruined a lot of lives.

We saw that in the election, but it’s not just that there is a resentment of rapid cultural change. Some feel they are being condescended to by elites that hold different values. And, unfortunately, “fear of the other” also has racial roots. There’s always an undercurrent of that in America. That’s our history, that’s the dark side of American history, and it’s very real even to this day.

Q: Are we more divided than we have been at any other time in our history? Or is this on a par with other periods where we’ve had ruptures?

Gerson: We’re dealing with massive fundamental economic and social change that is creating class divisions. We have a group of people that are not part of our economy, that are fundamentally separate from the economic growth of our time. To some extent, elites don’t even know them. They don’t understand them. And we’ve seen that in our politics.

There’s such a divide between the cities, which are islands of blue, and vast rural areas and parts of the country that are uniformly red. There’s not much contact between these very different worlds. Somehow, they are going to have to accommodate one another in our system. That is a very fundamental challenge.

Gerson is a syndicated columnist for the Washington Post, former speech writer for President George W. Bush, and a member of the Bush Institute’s Human Freedom Advisory Board. This is distributed by