Political Polarization

The world needs more moderates. Greater still, I believe the world would benefit tremendously if those who viewed issues from a moderate perspective spoke up more often. Unfortunately, being moderate tends to make a person less vocal. It also seems to make a person’s opinions less noticeable. While I can understand why this might occur, I still think a change needs to be made.

It seems to me that the last fifteen years have seen a dramatic swing toward greater political polarization in the US. Of course, partisan politics have always existed, but compared with today’s political scene, the 80’s and 90’s were rather tame. But throughout the presidency of George W. Bush, I watched the general opinion of the nation shift from something clearly partisan, yet fairly moderate, into something highly antagonistic against the Republican Party. Then, when Obama took office, I watched the nation shift toward something highly antagonistic against the Democratic Party (not Democrats, of course; their polarized individuals remained highly antagonistic toward the Republicans). But in all of this, few changed sides or attempted to see things from the other side’s point of view. Lots of name calling flew around, and plenty of vehemence was mustered, and that’s about it.

In fact, as I was looking for supporting data on this point, I found an article from the PEW Research Center that strongly supports this point. I encourage you to read it in full. It’s long, but well worth the time.

How did this happen?

Well, that’s a tough one, Subheader. I can’t say for sure. Perhaps those with a particular set of ideologies found themselves outraged at the opposition and thought it harmless to discuss the matter in their full fury. Perhaps their outrage was inspired by poorly researched or one-sided online articles. Perhaps the idea of discussing something in one’s full fury was learned in the increasing internet age where online comments are so free and unfettered, where people have an outlet to lash out at years of frustration in their personal lives. Perhaps a number of us grew up thinking that this was how communication is supposed to take place, and perhaps this found its way into the political sphere. I doubt this is the entire reason, but I think this has a lot to do with it.

Another major factor seems to be the rise of partisan-run media outlets. When people see an issue being expressed with such clear bias, they get indignant. And this indignation grows even stronger when you mix in cynical, partisan satire aimed at youth who have yet to experience the nuances of politics and government.

More so, we’ve seen an increase of this sort of hostility since Facebook’s founding in 2004 and Twitter’s founding in 2006. I assert that social media connected people who had long learned to communicate only in hostile ways. It gave them a channel to freely speak every frustration they were feeling and forced many around them to hear those frustrations. While freedom of speech is wonderful and must be protected, this rapid-fire, random-spouting method of communication not only amplified existing problems beyond reason, but also created new ones out of almost nothing.

Give me examples!

Ok, settle down there, Subheader; I was getting to it. Extreme polarization is so bad that even when a political party has plenty of good intentions in their stance, their opposition can only see them through a negative lens.

For example, George W. Bush promoted the concept of compassionate conservatism, which essentially said that it was good to give, but that we should free people to do so in ways that they think is best. This is frequently backed up by numerous studies (here’s one) that consistently show how Conservatives in general are far more generous than Liberals in general. Unfortunately, ideological members of the Democratic Party have often accused Republicans of not caring for the poor and needy in our society. They state that because Republicans often have sizable political contributions from the private sector and don’t want the government to handle charity that they’re heartless and in the pocket of the wealthy. Republicans counter that they simply don’t want the slow, wasteful government to lose so many of their tax dollars on the way to helping the poor. Of course, the GOP also receives sizable contributions and fights as a whole to keep making that possible, so they aren’t entirely blameless there either.

For an alternative example, note illegal immigration from Mexico. Obama has promoted a number of reasons to provide amnesty for many who are in the country illegally. Among his stated reasons are compassion, tradition, and the economic benefits. These are good points. Unfortunately, ideological members of the Republican Party have often accused Democrats of only trying to expand their voter base through shady tactics. They state that the Democratic Party is basically trying to do immigrants a favor, expecting loyalty in return. Democrats counter that this is completely untrue, and they simply want to help people. Of course, the Democratic Party depends heavily on minority voters and tends to push for the issue only when elections are on the line, so their intentions don’t look entirely pure either.

Why does this matter?

Good question, Subheader. Whatever the causes might have been, this polarization has continued to grow and foment. For some, this might not be much of an issue, but I would reason that those who don’t see cause for concern here are the very instigators of this trend. In other words, they say things like, “Well, we have every right to be upset about the BLANK Party: they’re so [selfish|arrogant|snobbish]!”

But I assert that this is a matter of significant importance in our country. Looking at the opposition in such a negative light only leads to a stubborn refusal to compromise. This means that less gets done, even when everyone would ultimately agree if only the other party hadn’t already taken a stance on the matter. Now we have parties unwilling to discuss even the most trivial or obvious of matters, simply because their opponents have taken a firm stance for one side.

Take the issue of climate change, for example. If you’re a Democrat, do you really think that Republicans want to lose coastal land in favor of profits? Or if you’re a Republican, do you really think that Democrats want to shut down all production in the country just to prevent carbon emissions? Perhaps some do on either side, or perhaps some are ignorant of all consequences, but even then, is it a majority? Probably not, when you stop to think about it. But the current political scene doesn’t ask us to stop and think about these things. Instead, it urges us to dive in and get angry. It tells us that there’s no time to ask questions–at least, not until our opinion has proven victorious.

OK, so what can be done about it?

Ah, I’m glad you went there, Subheader. In recent months there has been a surprising amount of chatter about passing laws to ban hate speech. This is the worst possible response. If that occurred, it would be a polarized reaction. Moreover, it would lead to even greater polarization. People are already upset as it is; the last thing we need is to annoy everyone even more and convince them that they have to do something drastic and irrational.

I propose a far simpler solution. I propose that, since our voices have caused this problem, it is only through our voices that we might hope to solve it. In other words, I propose an individual changed heart. I propose that if each one of us took it upon ourselves to respond rationally and reasonably to every situation that came up, we would change our part of the world. In turn, I propose that this responsible form of democratic governance could even lead to breakthroughs in areas apart from this one. Perhaps we would free up individuals to think for themselves, which in turn would help them to weigh the options and take a more nuanced approach. We might still disagree, but at least we would re-center the issues.

It seems to me that in this digital age, where comment trolls abound and hate is flung about so haphazardly, perhaps now would be the time to tone down our rhetoric. Perhaps now would be the time to take true stock of what we believe. If we don’t, I fear we’ll continue to make more and more extreme choices for public office. The more we rage in extreme ways against the things that we perceive as the extremes of our day, the more the opposition will rage back with their own extremes. It’s only when we realize that we all ultimately want the same things that we can make any headway toward a more stable and functional government.

And yet, a very real fear exists that if one side simply stops being irrational, then the other side might win, even with bad ideas. I don’t believe that the approach I’m suggesting would have such a negative outcome. I believe that if we change things from the ground up, the top will settle out naturally. If we, the people, stop shouting at each other and refusing to budge, then they, the elected officials, will listen. I believe that they will respond in like manner.

Leave a Reply