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Opinion: In times like these, polarization can bring clarity

Four years ago, I would have said America is a nation rooted in democracy and reason. Four years of argument and division have shown me otherwise.

Trump supporters gather outside the Capitol, Wednesday, Jan. 6, 2021, in Washington. (AP Photo/John Minchillo)

When discussing the politics of his namesake country, the civil rights activist Israel Shahak would say, “There are some encouraging signs of polarization.” His attitude seems bizarre to anyone who has lived through the last year, when polarization sank its roots to new depths in our collective consciousness. 

However tiring it is, polarization brings the possibility of clarity. It is only through the clash of ideas that we begin to know where we stand.

After a year of bitter fighting, I thought I’d share what all the polarization has clarified for me.

Nicholas Bernhard

First, I was wrong about my political priorities. I had assumed that a commitment to democracy was a given in America, but I was mistaken. Millions of Americans, including high-ranking officials, have supported former President Donald Trump’s efforts to overturn the election. 

Last month, a lawsuit to overturn the election results in four battleground states reached the U.S. Supreme Court. Over 125 Republican congressmen signed an amicus brief in support, including House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy. 

When the Supreme Court rejected the case, Texas Republican chairman Allen West suggested seceding from the Union. 

On Jan. 6, before Trump supporters stormed the U.S. Capitol, U.S. Rep. Lauren Boebert tweeted: “Today is 1776.”

The true political divide in this country is not between Democrats and Republicans, but between those who would defend the democratic process, and those who would undermine it with conspiracy-mongering or threats of violent coups.  

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Second, we forfeit intellectual honesty at our own peril. Trump has admitted that he asked for a slowdown in coronavirus testing, fearing that more tests would reveal more COVID cases and make him look bad. 

The former president has sought to discredit Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s leading disease control expert for over 35 years, because Fauci’s assessment of the facts do not match Trump’s political goals.

If we are to stand a chance against COVID, we must start with an honest understanding of its nature: Highly contagious, best spread by large indoor gatherings, deadly to society’s most vulnerable, and dangerous even to those who survive it. 

People chant “it’s no worse than the flu” or “it only kills old people” as if these were mantras that can alter reality, but COVID is immune to emotional appeal. 

Yes, COVID is a terrible burden on our lives, but that burden will not be lifted by wishful thinking. Attempts to outmaneuver uncomfortable facts with “alternative facts” have only sunk us deeper into confusion.

Third, defending a secular society, where people of all faiths or no faith can coexist without threat to each other’s well-being, has become a matter of life and death. 

People can be moved to commit horrific acts, ones that would make the most seasoned libertine blush, if they believe God is on their side. This impulse has found a tremendous multiplier in COVID-19.

In Brooklyn, the Orthodox Jewish community has been devastated by the virus, yet attempts to enforce lockdown restrictions were at times met with disturbances. Maine’s biggest virus outbreak has been tied to the Calvary Baptist Church, whose pastor decried masks and social distancing as “socialistic platforms.” In Tennessee, a pastor organized a gathering of over 10,000 people, vowing that “the church will not be silenced.”

There is nothing in Abrahamic scripture that strictly demands this level of ignorance. Religious leaders who have invoked God to dismiss the pandemic, or not wear a mask, have done a great disservice to religion. 

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The pandemic has made it much harder to say that a belief in God makes people behave better. People who value religion must be the first to stand up to those who would claim divine warrant to jeopardize public health.

Polarization can burn away the flaws in our arguments, leaving us with a brighter illumination of the truth. 

Four years ago, I would have said America is a nation rooted in democracy, reason, and a common-ground secularism. Four years of argument and division have shown me otherwise, but I am not sorry to have been wrong. I am grateful that I now know what I’m fighting for.


Nicholas Bernhard of Lafayette is the author of the historical novel “November in America,” based on the Colorado coal miner’s strike of 1927. He also directed the Colorado true-crime documentary “Blackstone’s Equation: The Tim Masters Story.”


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