Why Polarization?

Why do we care so much about political polarization?

Well, it’s arguably the single most urgent issue of our time. Political tribalism destroys public faith in the institutions integral to an accountable democracy, destabilizes our national economy, and short-circuits governmental efficacy. More than any of that, though, it directly threatens our health, compromising our ability to effectively respond to crises like COVID-19, mass shootings, or systemic racism. Recent research even suggests that political polarization within families drastically changes how we interact with each other at even the most personal level, degrading long-lasting cultural systems.

It’s clear that we’re reaching a breaking point. Unchecked political polarization has real and significant consequences for virtually every sphere of our lives, and understanding these effects is critical to combatting them.

We're segregating ourselves.

We’re increasingly segregating ourselves by partisanship, sacrificing any cross-ideological dialogue in favor of same-party bubbles where we can ‘safely’ inculcate our worldviews.

One 2016 Pew Research Center poll found that 47 percent of Republicans believed Democrats to be more “immoral” than other Americans, and that 35 percent of Democrats held that same view about Republicans. A more recent 2019 academic study found that roughly 42 percent of both parties now view their opposition as “downright evil.” Both studies identified social segregation as a driving factor of this animosity — for instance, Republicans with “few or no Democratic friends are twice as likely” to rate Democrats poorly than Republicans who have some Democratic friends.

And this segregation doesn’t just affect how we interact with our perceived opposition — it changes dynamics within groups as well, making internal dissent and diversity exponentially less likely. In one recent paper, entitled The Nature and Origins of Misperceptions, three leading political scientists note that we often feel intense “social pressure to think and act in ways that are consistent with important group identities” in polarized situations. Instead of thinking for ourselves, they explain, we tend to reason “toward conclusions that reinforce existing loyalties rather than conclusions that objective observers might deem ‘correct.’”

We’re endangering both our personal and collective community health.

We’ve already established that hyper-partisanship observably undermines our ability to respond to public health crises like COVID-19 or gun violence. But it will come as absolutely no surprise to many of you that heightened polarization is also associated with drastically elevated stress levels. In just the two years immediately following the 2016 election, many 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).

Even beyond personal physical health, the social segregation and hostility associated with political polarization threaten our community health. Extreme polarization often causes us to stop seeing members of other parties as human — and that’s incredibly dangerous. Since 2016, hate crimes have risen exponentially, and more Americans seem to endorse intergroup 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,” wrote political scientist Lilliana Mason.

We’re destroying our political culture.

Throughout 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 destructive behavior that prevents us from creating positive social change. It’s a phenomenon epitomized by the increasingly commonplace “blue lie,” or a lie told 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,” writes George Edwards, a political scientist at Texas A&M University.

It makes sense, then, that this rise in antagonistic lying would be reflected in our perception of key civic institutions. Studies show that political parties are now polarized over even whether they trust higher education providers, which serve 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 tent issues for many kinds of Americans.

We’re voluntarily surrendering our own civic power.

So many of the hot-button issues we often perceive as the most polarizing — like Second Amendment rights or immigration restrictions — are actually just the opposite. Polls regularly highlight wide public consensus concerning what policies we should pursue; for instance, 90 percent of Americans support universal background checks for gun purchases, 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 blind political tribalism 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, the filibuster is regularly invoked to promote 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 alone — and have powerful detrimental impacts on those who work for the government as well.

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