Primer: Political polarization
I sometimes forget that not everyone is interested in politics. Normally this lack of awareness isn't an issue, since the people I choose to spend time with often have the requisite background knowledge and/or patience to humor me when I get particularly heated or passionate about something. Lately, though, I’ve been realizing that many of my discussion partners lack a basic definitional understanding of certain political phenomena – chief among them, political polarization.
Political polarization is an incredibly salient area of analysis. Most quintessential criticisms of our policy-making institutions – namely, Congress – arise out of frustration in the partisan political gridlock that defines our country. Complaining about political polarization has become commonplace, but overused: it’s the go-to condemnation of our political system among those not actually familiar with our political system. Most recently, it’s been used to decry all the commotion surrounding Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh’s impending confirmation.
And it makes sense. Particularly on the internet, it’s easy to imagine a hyperpolarized person stewing in an echo-chamber, taking in limited information, refusing to engage with alternate perspectives, and reaching conclusions emotionally rather than rationally. But political polarization is a more nuanced phenomenon than that, and blindly blaming it for the brokenness of American politics demonstrates a deep lack of understanding.
My theory is that the average citizen tends to conceptualize political polarization as an unwillingness to engage with members of one’s opposing political party. And to a certain extent, that’s right – refusal to cooperate is one of the most tangible results of polarization. But it doesn’t get at the heart of the matter, the crux of the phenomenon described by the term “polarization.”
Let’s, just for a minute, forget that there are two political parties. Instead of focusing on Republican and Democratic platforms, think about what those platforms represent: sets of values. Not political values, just basic intrinsic principles about what should be valued and what gets priority. These values determine how we view options, how we frame different matter.
Now apply those values to hot button political issues. Take gun control, for example – those who value perceived inalienable rights, like the right to protect themselves, are going to base their policy decisions off that framework. Those who prioritize human life over all else might end up opposing that decision, because of their own respective value system. Occasionally those value systems will overlap (i.e., both individuals agree that safety should be prioritized but have different ideas about how to achieve their common goal), but I’d argue that that is not in fact polarization. Shared fundamental values means compromise is possible, regardless of emotionality or perceived difference.
That’s what polarization is. It’s not an unwillingness to compromise created out of socialized animosity towards those of opposing political ideology, it’s an unwillingness to compromise generated by the clash of value systems (which are often encapsulated and codified among party lines).
So when people unthinkingly denounce political polarization as the root of all our problems, they’re not seeing it for what it is: people fighting for the values they believe in. Yes, sure, it can cause federal shutdowns and prevent policy from being created – but when the disagreement is over fundamental human rights (like a woman’s right to choose, or same-sex marriage), standing for what you believe in is the only rational course of action.
Yes, I understand the problems with absolute stubbornness in the policy-making process. But if anything, the increased polarization we’re seeing now is due not to simple disagreement over policy, but a radically changing right-wing movement that is doing its best to strip minorities, immigrants, the queer community, and women of their rights. So rather than making quick and easy claims about the phenomenon, understanding political polarization as a conscious decision not to let those with different value systems undermine what you know is right is the key to understanding our political system.