Political polarization is the single greatest threat to our democracy
It’s just 47 days until the November 2020 Presidential election, and shit’s wild. COVID-19 is rampaging through our global infrastructure, and we’re still—at minimum—months away from a working vaccine. We may finally have an anti-racist majority; Black Lives Matter protests continue to disrupt daily life in cities across the nation. ICE stands accused of performing forced hysterectomies on women detained in a privately-owned immigration jail in Georgia. The entire American West Coast is burning.
I could write about any one of these issues (and probably will). It’s clear that we are collectively, nationally, at a breaking point. We urgently need strong national legislative innovation to answer each and every danger to our public; continued inaction is clearly unsustainable.
None of this is what I want to discuss now, however. Instead, I’d like to confront what I truly believe is the single greatest threat to American democracy: Political polarization.
I recognize that, after reading my introductory paragraphs, this may seem like an almost ridiculously bold claim. But I stand by it—radical polarization destroys public faith in the institutions integral to an accountable democracy, destabilizes our national economy, and short-circuits governmental efficacy. Moreover, radicalization directly and profoundly affects us at a socio-emotional level; recent research even suggests that intra-family political polarization drastically changes how we interact with each other at mealtime.
It’s true that all successful democratic systems are driven by inter-party conflict, but that tension must be carefully defined and navigated. It’s one thing for Democrats and Republicans to disagree on policy issues, but another entirely for Democrats and Republicans to fear each other. I cling to no illusions about the intrinsically emotional nature of political identity, but I also recognize that our ready willingness to segregate ourselves by political affiliation is causing our national political systems to disintegrate.
I’d like to first explain why exactly political polarization matters so much to me—and why it should matter just as much to you. I’ll then set about confronting one or two of the considerations that immediately present themselves in any discussion of radicalization, before ending with an incomplete strategy for bridging the exponentially widening partisan divide.
How segregated are you from those who hold contrary political beliefs?
Studies show that we regularly self-sort ourselves into like-minded communities, choosing to exclusively eat, socialize, and live alongside other members of our own political group. Consequently, we now inculcate our worldviews alongside others who share our political values—often making us immediately unreceptive or hostile to members of other political parties.
One 2016 Pew poll found that 47 percent of Republicans believed Democrats are more “immoral” than other Americans, and that 35 percent of Democrats held that view about Republicans. The same study also identified social segregation as a driving factor of this animosity: Republicans with “few or no Democratic friends are twice as likely” to rate Democrats poorly than Republicans who have some Democratic friends.
It’s also important to remember that political polarization doesn’t just manifest as inter-group conflict, but that it also changes the dynamics within groups, making internal dissent and diversity less likely. In a 2016 paper entitled “The Nature and Origins of Misperceptions,” three political scientists noted that in polarized situations we often feel intense “social pressure to think and act in ways that are consistent with important group identities.” Instead of thinking for ourselves, they went on, we tend to reason “toward conclusions that reinforce existing loyalties rather than conclusions that objective observers might deem ‘correct.’” In other words: Political polarization isn't just constraining our social networks, it's actively changing the way we think and behave even with those we should, theoretically, be comfortable with.
Our physical health is at risk
It will come as absolutely no surprise to many of you that intense ideological radicalization is associated with drastically elevated stress levels. In just the two years immediately following the 2016 election, a significant number of Americans reported that discussing politics with people they disagree with became increasingly “stressful and frustrating” (especially among Democrats, where we saw a 12 percent increase between March 2016 and October 2018).
Stress, as we know, can have significant consequences for physiological health. Studies show that those who harbor prejudices or chronic fear experience physical responses that, given time, wear down muscles and damage immune systems. Essentially, radicalized polarization can directly impact your personal, bodily well-being.
Moreover, our social segregation and hostility often cause use to stop seeing those in competing groups as human beings—and that’s incredibly dangerous. Since the 2016 election, hate crimes have risen exponentially, and more Americans seem to endorse inter-group violence. One 2018 study linked these patterns to ‘partisan identity strength,’ or the significance we give our political partisanship in constructing our overall identity. “It makes sense that as an identity grows stronger, and conflict intensifies, people will begin to approve of violence,” says political scientist Lilliana Mason.
We’re actively undermining our own civic power
During the 1960 presidential campaign season, just 10 percent of political advertisements were negative. In 2012, just 14 percent of campaign ads were positive.
We’re creating an incredibly antagonistic political culture—but more than that, we’re committing our nation to destructively cynical behavior that prevents us from creating positive social change. It’s a phenomenon epitomized by the increasingly commonplace “blue lie,” or any lying performed when in conflict with another group. “People condone lying against enemy nations, and since many people now see those on the other side of American politics as enemies, they may feel that lies, when they recognize them, are appropriate means of warfare,” says George Edwards, a political scientist at Texas A&M University.
It also makes sense, subsequently, that this rise in antagonistic lying would be reflected in our public perception of key civic institutions. Studies show that political parties are now polarized over even whether they trust higher education, which serves as the foundational bedrock of much American civic and business life. It’s a loss of faith that’s mirrored in several other political spheres, to different degrees—the press, the military, common good programs like libraries, and other institutions that were once ‘big tents’ for many kinds of Americans.
We struggle to solve even the most urgent national issues, even when we agree
So many of the hot-button issues we often perceive as most polarizing—like Second Amendment rights or immigration restrictions—are actually just the opposite. Surveys regularly highlight wide public consensus concerning what policies we should pursue; 90 percent of Americans support universal background checks for gun purchases, for instance, but both our gridlocked Congress and a media environment that treats gun issues as a zero-sum game continue to ignore that accord. On issue after issue, we’re closer to each other than we think we are, but radicalized polarization prevents us from recognizing that.
In years gone by, senators used the filibuster as a last-resort tool to force prolonged debate about a piece of legislation. Now, however, the filibuster is regularly invoked in a partisan manner to create gridlock, thereby obstructing legislation that serves public interest. It’s common knowledge that the 112th Congress, for instance, passed fewer laws than any other since the early 1800s.
Polarization at both a community and elite level also have severe consequences for our national economy. Government shutdowns are costly—the Congressional Budget Office estimates that the shutdown between December 2018 and January 2019 cost the economy $11 billion—and, needless to say, also have powerful detrimental consequences for government employees and contractors.
So, okay, political polarization is an immediate problem. How do we solve it?
The shallow, surface-level response is to just say: Conversation. I understand that to many this may seem wildly illogical, but I genuinely believe that debate and dialogue can be integral components of a much larger, several-pronged attack on polarization.
I’m not entirely sure how to ignite that cross-partisan dialogue yet; I admit that freely. It undeniably begins with those members of each party already predisposed to communication, obviously, but then what? How do you unite the more steadfastly partisan individuals, those who may resist collaborative work?
I have some ideas. We connect people from different backgrounds, with emphasis placed on young Americans, in the name of freedom, or democracy, or some other common goal. We stop treating our government like a game show, finally imposing common-sense media standards for news programming—the Fox News Effect is a well-documented problem that must be addressed (though it is only part of the problem, given that the network averages just 2.5 million primetime viewers, or under one percent of the national population, on even the very best days). We create the economic conditions necessary for a political environment in which honest, rational debate is valued, rather than buried under profit margin. In other words, creating cross-partisan dialogue begins not just as a personal effort, but as a broad reassessment of many of our permeating political values and systems.
I do think it’s also worth noting that when I advocate cross-partisan dialogue, I am not advocating moderatism. I am in no way suggesting that to resolve polarization we must force the electorate back to the political middle; I believe we can work to understand and combat the phenomenon without compromising our ideological value sets—which brings me to my next consideration.
How am I expected to engage with someone who refuses my basic, fundamental right to exist?
Clearly, igniting cross-partisan conversation is a fraught endeavor. It’s difficult to reverse the disease that is tribalism, given the almost definitional complexity of connecting two individuals who have themselves chosen to segregate.
The obvious question here is as follows: How, and why, am I expected to have a civil conversation with someone who refuses my right to exist or threatens my identity? It’s a phenomenal challenge to the feasibility of dialogue, and that must needs be answered completely.
It’s in light of this consideration that I am reminded of Karl Popper’s paradox of tolerance. Popper, an Austrian-born British philosopher and social commentator, wrote on a diverse array of epistemological political issues—including the concept of tolerance, and its applicability to political thought.
Popper spent significant energy working to reconcile several contrary political ideologies—socialism, classical liberalism, libertarianism, and conservatism—into one cohesive political philosophy to support liberal democracy. It’s his 1945 work, “The Open Society and Its Enemies," that’s directly relevant to this discussion of polarization, which Popper published in direct response to the outbreak of Nazism and, consequently, World War II. In it, he prescribes a simple course of action to take in situations where we are encouraged to tolerate intolerance: Don’t.
“Less well known is the paradox of tolerance: Unlimited tolerance must lead to the disappearance of tolerance. If we extend unlimited tolerance even to those who are intolerant, if we are not prepared to defend a tolerant society against the onslaught of the intolerant, then the tolerant will be destroyed, and tolerance with them….In this formulation, I do not imply, for instance, that we should always suppress the utterance of intolerant philosophies; as long as we can counter them by rational argument and keep them in check by public opinion, suppression would certainly be unwise. But we should claim the right to suppress them if necessary even by force; for it may easily turn out that they are not prepared to meet us on the level of rational argument, but begin by denouncing all argument; they may forbid their followers to listen to rational argument, because it is deceptive, and teach them to answer arguments by the use of their fists or pistols. We should therefore claim, in the name of tolerance, the right not to tolerate the intolerant. We should claim that any movement preaching intolerance places itself outside the law, and we should consider incitement to intolerance and persecution as criminal, in the same way as we should consider incitement to murder, or to kidnapping, or to the revival of the slave trade, as criminal.”
TLDR: If we demand unbounded tolerance, we are forced to tolerate even the most oppressive and unfounded ideologies in our society—and, consequently, we provide a tacit endorsement of those values. Subsequently, we must retain the right to ignore or censor the intolerant, or risk harming our most vulnerable citizens.
So, then, here’s the answer to our dilemma. We are obliged to engage in conversation and debate to safeguard our open society, but not to engage with anyone unwilling or uninterested in broad rational dialogue. If we’re asked to tolerate an idea or policy that operates at the expense of someone else’s existence or well-being—i.e. any supremacist ideology, or any other thought that threatens someone’s existence on basis of identity—our obligation is actually not to tolerate it, in the name of maintaining democratic ideals.
Conversation, as an answer to political polarization, is not an outright solution. It’s just one element of a much larger strategy.
It should be eminently clear at this point that I believe in the value of cross-partisan dialogue, and that I recognize educating our electorate on political polarization is an important first step to combating it. It should also be clear, however, that I do not expect anyone to yield their moral or political values in this endeavor, and that there are cases in which it is our responsibility not to tolerate dangerous ideology (à la Popper’s paradox)—in which case, how else can we resolve harmful national radicalization?
Here, I’d like to briefly outline an incomplete legislative plan for bridging the partisan divide. I believe there are several important policy recommendations that can bring us closer together, especially if united with a concerted effort to make our political system more widely accessible.
End gerrymandering and fight voter suppression
It’s common knowledge that gerrymandering is a problem. Democrats and Republicans alike rely heavily on it to preserve their organizational power, pre-ordaining primary elections with more minutely accurate data than ever before. When we allow states to draw their own districts, we allow politicians to choose exactly which voters they want to vote where—in other words, unaccountably dividing the electorate by ideology.
It’s time to establish independent redistricting commissions, standardizing the mapmaking process to empower districts that are fair and representative. I cannot see an effective approach to resolving political polarization without this reform; it’s an urgent priority.
Simultaneously, though, we need to continuously and relentlessly fight wholesale voter suppression as it manifests across the United States. This campaign will exist on a case-by-case basis, as unfolding dangers to our electoral rights provoke new legal challenges and protections. It’s a continuous effort to create a nation impervious to malicious electoral corruption.
Open primaries to independent voters
Once, general elections were exciting; candidates fought until election day to convert as many voters as possible. Now, they’re preordained, lackadaisical displays of partisan power—gerrymandering-created ‘safe seats’ mean the winner of the primary is virtually guaranteed to win the general.
In other words, the primary election is often the only election that matters. And yet, these taxpayer-funded elections currently exclude over 11 million American citizens and, consequently, encourage only partisan extremist voters to participate.
Closed primaries are a form of voter suppression, and the reason elected representatives refuse to work across the aisle. Allowing independent voters to participate in either open or nonpartisan primaries improves the incentives representatives have to represent all their voters.
Implement ranked-choice voting
It’s time to implement ranked-choice voting (RCV). It just is. RCV solves so many existing problems with our fundamentally broken electoral system. It promotes majority support, discourages negative campaigning, provides voters with more choice, eliminates the ‘lesser of two evils’ decision, saves money—and confronts political polarization.
I’ll briefly run through these benefits below, but if you’re interested in learning more, I recommend starting with the FairVote website.
In a ranked-choice voting system, the winner always represents the popular vote. Where current electoral systems regularly crown candidates who fail to persuade even half their constituency, RCV ensures that elections are representative.
In RCV campaigning, candidates do best when they reach out positively to as many voters as possible, including those supporting their opponents. Consequently, there are fewer negative ads attacking opponents—immediately improving our political culture.
RCV allows more than two candidates to compete without fear of splitting the vote among like-minded individuals, emphasizing competition. Moreover, it eliminates the ‘lesser of two evils’ decision-making strategy—if a voter’s first choice is eliminated, their vote automatically transfers to their second choice.
RCV is sometimes referred to as ‘instant runoff voting,’ since it allows two rounds of voting in a single, more representative, higher turnout election. Consequently, it can save a jurisdiction (or country) a lot of money, even as it helps promote majority rule.
In a traditional American campaign, candidates need only appeal to their core constituency. In an RCV election, candidates need to demonstrate diversity of political viewpoint to engage a broader audience—promoting the representation of historically underrepresented groups and fighting polarizing radicalization.
I’m always shocked at the immediate backlash ranked-choice voting gets when it’s introduced in the media. It seems like a fairly straightforward path forward—the benefits are undeniable—and I strongly believe it will be key in reducing dangerous political polarization.
If you’ve read this far, I’d like to thank you for your time. I recognize this is longer than most pieces I release on my blog, but I truly do think it’s an incredibly important conversation to have, and one that warrants comprehensive analysis.
Our nation is divided, and it’s a problem. Exponentially increasing national political polarization is an enormous threat to our democracy, and one that must be addressed immediately before we can adequately or successfully solve any number of the other social and environmental problems that we currently face. I'll spare you the overused Abraham Lincoln quote about a house divided, in favor of this succinctly poignant observation from Brad Henry, the former governor of Oklahoma: "There is too much at stake for us to surrender to the politics of polarization."