Not all polarization is bad, but the US could be in trouble | Chroniclers


ROBERT B. TALISSE Vanderbilt University

For the first time, the United States was classified as a “backward democracy” in a comprehensive assessment of democratic societies by the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance, an intergovernmental research group.

One of the main reasons cited by the report is the continued popularity among Republicans of the false allegations of widespread voter fraud in the 2020 presidential election.

But according to the organization’s secretary general, perhaps the “most worrying” aspect of American democracy is “rampant polarization.” A year after the January 6 riot on Capitol Hill, Americans’ perceptions of that day’s well-documented events are divided along partisan lines.

Polarization looms large in many diagnoses of America’s current political struggles. Some researchers caution against approaching an irreversible “tipping point” of polarization. The suggested remedies are available across the partisan spectrum.

There are two types of polarization, as I say in my book “Sustaining Democracy”. One is not inherently dangerous; the other can be. And together, they can be extremely destructive to democratic societies.

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Political polarization is the ideological distance between opposing parties. If the differences are significant, it can produce dead ends, dead ends, and inflexibility within Congress and state and local governments. While it can be frustrating, political polarization is not necessarily dysfunctional. It can even be beneficial, providing real choices for voters and policy makers. After all, deep disagreement can be healthy for democracy. The clash of opinions can help us find the truth. The clamor of ideological differences between political parties provides citizens with shortcuts to make political choices.

Belief polarization, also known as group polarization, is different. Interacting with other like-minded people turns people into more extreme versions of themselves. These more extreme selves are also overconfident and therefore more prepared to engage in risky behaviors.

The polarization of beliefs also causes people to embrace more intensely negative feelings towards people with different points of view. As they turn to extremism, they come to define themselves and others primarily in terms of partisanship. Ultimately, politics extends beyond political ideas and into entire lifestyles.

But that’s not all. As I explain in my book, as society adopts “liberal” and “conservative” lifestyles, people become more involved in controlling the borders between “us” and “them”. And as popular alliances focus on hostility towards those who disagree, they become more conformist and intolerant of differences between allies.

People become less and less able to deal with disagreements, eventually becoming citizens who believe that democracy is only possible when everyone agrees with them. It is a deeply undemocratic position.

The polarization of beliefs is toxic for relations between citizens. But the large-scale political dysfunction lies in how the political polarization and the polarization of beliefs work together in a mutually reinforcing loop. When citizens are divided into two clans who are obsessed with animosity against each other, politicians are made to amplify hostility towards their opponents, supporters.

And because citizens are divided over life choices rather than political ideas, office holders are freed from the usual electoral pressure to advance a legislative platform. They can be re-elected simply on the basis of their antagonism.

As politicians deepen their divisions, citizens are urged to entrench partisan segregation. This produces an additional polarization of beliefs, which in turn rewards political intransigence. Meanwhile, constructive political processes are overwhelmed by mere symbolism and tribalism, while people’s capacities for responsible democratic citizenship erode.

Cures for polarization tend to focus on how it plagues relationships between citizens. President Joe Biden was surely right to point out in his inaugural speech that Americans must “turn down the heat” and “not see themselves as adversaries, but as neighbors”.

Yet democracy presupposes political disagreement. As James Madison observed, America needs democracy precisely because self-governing citizens will inevitably disagree on politics. The answer to polarization cannot involve calls for unanimity or the abandonment of partisan rivalries. A democracy without political divisions is not a democracy at all.

The task is to make the political differences of the people more civil, to restore the capacity to disagree with respect. But this cannot be accomplished simply by conducting political discussions differently. Research indicates that once people are polarized, exposure to even civilian expressions from the perspective of the other side creates more polarization.

This is a case of the crucial difference between prevention and cure. It is not enough to pretend that polarization has not happened, or to behave as if it is a minor concern. In the current situation, even sincere attempts to engage in a respectful dialogue with the other party often backfires.

Yet Americans remain democratic citizens, partners in the shared self-government project who cannot simply ignore each other.

Polarization is a problem that cannot be solved, it can only be managed. This makes relations between political opponents toxic, but it also harms relations between allies. This intensifies conformity within coalitions, reducing people’s concepts of tolerable levels of disagreement in like-minded groups.

So, managing polarization may involve working to counter compliance by engaging in respectful disagreements with people we see as allies. By taking steps to remember that politics always involve arguments, even between those who vote for the same candidates and affiliates of the same party, Americans can begin to rediscover the ability to respectfully disagree with their opponents.

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