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Kennedy School Hosts Discussion on Partisan Reconciliation

The Harvard Kennedy School, pictured in December 2017.
The Harvard Kennedy School, pictured in December 2017. By Caleb D. Schwartz
By Arvin Hariri and Jessica Lee, Contributing Writers

University Professor Danielle S. Allen and Adam D. Serwer, a staff writer for The Atlantic, discussed the future of political divisions in American society at the John F. Kennedy, Jr. Forum Tuesday night.

The event, titled “American Reconciliation and its Alternatives,” built off of segments of The Atlantic’s December Issue, “How to Stop a Civil War.” Joined in conversation by Atlantic editor-in-chief Jeffery Goldberg, who moderated the panel, Allen began the event by emphasizing the importance of unity in democracy.

“The biggest danger to maintaining democracy over time is fragmentation, and disunion, and breakup,” she said.

Allen said that she believes unity is the foundation of human empowerment. In the face of conflict, she stressed the importance of a democracy based on cooperative decision-making. She added that she thinks demagogues who seek to take advantage of factionalism for personal gain threaten this form of democracy.

“In seeking his own power, [a demagogue] has mainly the motivation of stripping public liberty away, taking away the chance for ordinary people to rule themselves through collective decision-making,” she said.

While Allen warned about the danger of demagogues, she said that reconciliation between divided populations is possible if individuals support larger societal goals.

“So reconciliation, from my point of view, is about demonstrating consistently, in whatever mode one has of interacting, that one is committed to the whole of society,” she said. “If you can perform that commitment and connection over and over again, that starts to make space for people to actually do things together.”

Serwer said he thinks that reconciliation should not be prioritized above the survival of liberal democracy.

“The terms on which [polarization] ends are far more important than the fact that it ends,” he said. “If it does not end in a way that recognizes the full citizenship of all Americans regardless of background, then it’s not going to be a real or true reconciliation.”

He continued by discussing what he termed a prevalent mindset within the Republican Party today that hinders the process of depolarization.

“I think the big obstacle to this, honestly, is that you have a faction of people in the United States who really feel like they are fighting an existential battle against annihilation,” Serwer said. “So they don’t feel like they can lose because if they lose, then it’s over for them.”

Serwer added that he thinks this “existential insanity” enables President Donald Trump's supporters to back his policies.

Attendee Jay T. Gleason disagreed with Serwer and said he believes people suffer from “Trump derangement syndrome."

“I don’t mind if they go down the record one issue or one question at a time and just critique it in a rational way instead of in an emotive way,” he said. “It makes me feel that they are oftentimes doing these jumps simply for partisan-electoral purposes and they want to get rid of [Trump].”

Audience member Abraham “Abe” S. Atwood ’23 said he agrees with the panelists' concerns regarding polarization.

“I was interested in hearing a talk partially about polarization in American politics, because I think it’s something I see as being one of the biggest threats to American democracy.”

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