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OPINION | Crises lay bare America’s deficit of goodwill

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THE brutal shocks hitting America this spring have opened up a variety of financial deficits.

Perhaps more important, though, they have revealed a more pervasive underlying condition: a goodwill deficit. Put simply, too many Americans have stopped giving the benefit of the doubt to those with whom they disagree.

For more than three months, the U.S. has been reeling from twin shocks: first a pandemic and associated economic slide, followed by the brutal killing of a black man in police custody and the ensuing protests. In an idealized world, these shocks might have pulled the country together.

Instead, the U.S. has experienced angry protests from the right over reopening the economy, followed by angry protests from the left over racial injustice. In what amounts to a symbol of the moment, a high steel fence now has been erected for blocks around the White House, designed to keep away not foreign terrorists but American citizens.

What has happened?

That is a complex and emotionally fraught question, but part of the answer lies here: a growing tendency to see those with whom you disagree as not merely wrong, but evil. There is a diminishing willingness to believe that the person on the other side of the debate — any debate — is well intentioned.

This is one reason racial justice on the one hand and law and order on the other have come to be seen as opposing goals — much as stopping the spread of the coronavirus by social distancing on the one hand and reopening the economy on the other came to be regarded as opposing goals.

Such attitudes helped produce the partisan divide that now colors almost every issue. This absence of goodwill didn’t begin amid these crises. The trend was present and documented before, setting the stage for this spring’s discontents.

A 2019 survey sponsored by the Brookings Institution, for example, found that 82% of Republicans think the Democratic Party has been taken over by socialists. On the other, 80% of Democrats think the Republican Party has been taken over by racists.

Similarly, a paper presented last year by political scientists Nathan P. Kalmoe and Lilliana Mason cited a survey showing that nearly 60% of Republicans and more than 60% of Democrats agreed that the opposing party is a serious threat to the U.S. and its people. Just over 40% of those in each party thought the opposing party wasn’t just worse for politics, but “downright evil.”

Perhaps most shocking, the political scientists also cite a 2017 survey that found 18% of Democrats and 13% of Republicans agreed that violence would be at least somewhat justified if the other side won the 2020 election.

Many aren’t so extreme, of course. A 2018 Pew Research study found a large majority of Americans said it is important to follow the rules, even if that makes it harder to get things done in the political world. Yet a similar Pew study also found a declining number of people in both parties said they like politicians who are willing to make compromises with the other side.

As that suggests, many political leaders are modeling for the nation a no-compromises style that says the person on the other side of the debate shouldn’t be given the benefit of any doubt. This certainly is true of the way President Trump frames political debates, but it’s also true of many of his detractors.

Apolitical dialogue that suggests those who disagree with you are morally inferior inevitably widens and deepens the divide — and that is exactly what we are seeing. A new Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll shows the partisan divide appearing on almost every question of public life, and increasingly in private life.

The survey found, for example, that 84% of Democrats believe President Trump is too focused on the economy and not enough on keeping people safe during the coronavirus outbreak. A precisely inverse view prevails in the Republican Party, where 83% say he is striking the right balance between the economy and keeping people safe.

Perhaps most stunning is the partisan divide that has opened up over the simple, seemingly nonpolitical decision to wear a mask in public. Those who say they always wear a mask in public settings said they support Joe Biden, the Democrats’ presumptive presidential nominee, over Mr. Trump, 66% to 26%. Those who never or rarely wear masks backed Mr. Trump, 83% to 7%.

“These are really powerful signs that our partisan filter is the way we see everything,” says Bill McInturff, a Republican pollster who conducts the survey along with Democrat Jeff Horwitt.

And goodwill has become a casualty of the process.

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