Civility is a style of argument that implicitly welcomes response. It’s not often that an obituary goes viral, but this October a family chose to expose its immense pain for all the world to see, and the story of that pain rocketed around the Internet.
Madelyn Linsenmeir was 30 when she died from her addiction. She first tried OxyContin as a teenager, a moment that “began a relationship with opiates that would dominate the rest of her life.” Reading on, you find that she had a son. And when she became a mom, she tried “harder and more relentlessly to stay sober than we have ever seen anyone try at anything.” But, her family wrote, “she relapsed and ultimately lost custody of her son.” That loss was “unbearable,” and her addiction took her to places of “incredible darkness”–a reality that friends and families of addicts know all too well.
Madelyn was one life among the hundreds of thousands (72,000 in 2017 alone) lost to drugs. Along with suicide and alcohol-related deaths, overdoses are fueling a stunning three-year decline in life expectancy in the U.S. These deaths of despair are happening in a time of robust economic growth in arguably the most prosperous and powerful nation in the history of the world, and the decline began even as more Americans had access to health insurance than ever before.
When historians review this period, they’ll see two seemingly disconnected cultural realities, existing side by side. Yes, they’ll see the astounding death rates and the terrible spread of self-harm. They’ll also see something else–a nation divided by fear and anger. America has become a nation that mourns and a nation that hates, and the two are more related than they may appear.
Negative partisanship has infected nearly every corner of political life. By 2017, 81% of Republicans and Democrats viewed the opposing party unfavorably, with the percentage viewing their opponents “very” unfavorably nearly tripling since 1994.
This fall, a group called More in Common released a comprehensive survey of America’s “hidden tribes,” seeking to understand the sources of American polarization. It concluded that much of America’s political anger was driven by what it called “the wings,” which are flanked by the 8% of Americans who are “progressive activists” and the 6% who are “devoted conservatives.”
The members of the tribes on each end of the spectrum share some common characteristics. They’re disproportionately white, they’re well off, and they’re intensely engaged in politics–roughly twice as likely to list politics as a “hobby” than the average American. They’re motivated. They have means. And they focus many of those resources and much of that energy opposing a political enemy they view as truly dangerous.
Now let’s contrast the polarizing wings with the suffering segments of society. The overdose crisis is harming every social class, but it’s hitting the least educated the hardest. And it affects single men and women disproportionately, with overdose rates skyrocketing for single men without a college degree.
To be clear, I’m not arguing that poor Americans are killing themselves with drugs because of politics. Nor am I arguing that political fights among the relatively affluent are contributing to the crisis. No, the question I raise is this: When their fellow citizens are suffering on such a terrible scale, what are the most engaged, most resourced Americans doing with their lives?
Unless you’re among the tiny group of people who exercise actual, substantial political authority, each of us can only have a large influence on a small number of people and a small influence on a large number of people. In other words, we have the potential to transform a life. We have minimal capacity to individually change American politics.
So after we take care of ourselves and our families, where do we expend our excess emotional and financial energy? Is it on the community that we can immediately and consequentially reach? Or is it on a national polity that seems immune to our rage? While some members of our most partisan class do engage in their communities, for millions of Americans, the answer is clear. Politics is the true faith, and political argument is the work that replaces our religious salvation.
Solving our most pressing problems is a titanic undertaking, and they won’t be fixed simply by putting a stop to political squabbling. Indeed, the scale of our challenges contributes to a sense of futility. Americans die by the tens of thousands, and each life is hard to save. This can lead us to throw up our hands and focus on the shouting that seems more manageable. Thus too many talented and passionate citizens spend too much energy where they can have the least impact. The nation that hates thus too often ignores the nation that mourns.
Too many of our citizens spend too much of their energy where they can have the least impact
The solution isn’t to disengage. “Can’t we all just get along” is a naive call in a nation so profoundly divided by consequential questions. Those for and against access to abortion, for example, should engage each other in the marketplace of ideas, even when doing so can be emotionally fraught. We should debate the Saudi alliance, the Mueller probe and tax rates. There is, however, a matter of priority and proportion that often gets lost, and that can and should demand a sustained policy response to our national malaise. But there’s a problem. The opioid crisis is so deep-seated and complex that it doesn’t fit neatly in the partisan box. Is there any way through that doesn’t require cooperating with the people we’ve grown to hate?
Not long ago I was deeply convicted by an off-hand comment at my church. A woman lamented that she was “too busy for her community.” She was too busy for the people she could influence most. That’s me, I thought. That is my most fundamental flaw. I don’t know my neighbors well, but you can be sure that I know when someone is wrong online. I sometimes struggle to provide even my own friends who’ve battled addiction and alcoholism with sufficient support. Life gets busy, after all, and there are always libs to own. This is the inversion of our priorities from the neighbor whose life I can help change to the nation I can’t save.
This is a moment of profound historic importance. For the blessed, privileged class of Americans, the challenge is clear. A mass cultural crisis demands a mass cultural response. And if loathing for the distant partisan motivates us more than love for the close neighbor, I’d argue that we’re failing that test. That is the hate that will ultimately shame us all.
(This appears in the November 05, 2018 issue of TIME.)