For the first time, the United States has been classified as a “backsliding democracy” in a global assessment of democratic societies by the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance, an intergovernmental research group.
But according to the organization’s secretary general, perhaps the “most concerning” aspect of American democracy is “runaway polarization.” One year after the Jan. 6 Capitol riot, Americans’ perceptions about even the well-documented events of that day are divided along partisan lines.
Polarization looms large in many diagnoses of America’s current political struggles. Some researchers warn of an approaching “tipping point” of irreversible polarization. Suggested remedies are available from across the partisan spectrum.
There are two types of polarization, as I discuss in my book “Sustaining Democracy.” One isn’t inherently dangerous; the other can be. And together, they can be extremely destructive of democratic societies.
Political polarization is the ideological distance between opposed parties. If the differences are large, it can produce logjams, standoffs and inflexibility in Congress and state and local governments. Though it can be frustrating, political polarization is not necessarily dysfunctional. It even can be beneficial, offering true choices for voters and policymakers alike. Deep-seated disagreement can be healthy for democracy, after all. The clash of opinions can help us find the truth. The clamor of ideological differences among political parties provides citizens with shortcuts for making political choices.
Belief polarization, also called group polarization, is different. Interaction with like-minded others transforms people into more extreme versions of themselves. These more extreme selves are also overly confident and therefore more prepared to engage in risky behavior.
Belief polarization also leads people to embrace more intensely negative feelings toward people with different views. As they shift toward extremism, they come to define themselves and others primarily in terms of partisanship. Eventually, politics expands beyond policy ideas and into entire lifestyles.
But that’s not all. As I explain in my book, as society sorts into “liberal” and “conservative” lifestyles, people grow more invested in policing the borders between “us” and “them.” And as people’s alliances focus on hostility toward those who disagree, they become more conformist and intolerant of differences among allies.
People grow less able to navigate disagreement, eventually developing into citizens who believe that democracy is possible only when everyone agrees with them. That is a profoundly antidemocratic stance.
The polarization loop
Belief polarization is toxic for citizens’ relations with one another. But the large-scale political dysfunction lies in how political and belief polarization work together in a mutually reinforcing loop. When the citizenry is divided into two clans that are fixated on animus against the other, politicians have incentives to amplify hostility toward their partisan opponents.
And because the citizenry is divided over lifestyle choices rather than policy ideas, officeholders are released from the usual electoral pressure to advance a legislative platform. They can gain reelection simply based on their antagonism.
As politicians escalate their rifts, citizens are cued to entrench partisan segregation. This produces additional belief polarization, which in turn rewards political intransigence. All the while, constructive political processes get submerged in the merely symbolic and tribal, while people’s capacities for responsible democratic citizenship erode.
Remedies for polarization tend to focus on how it poisons citizens’ relations. Surely President Joe Biden was correct to stress in his inaugural address that Americans need to “lower the temperature” and to “see each other not as adversaries, but as neighbors.”
Still, democracy presupposes political disagreement. As James Madison observed, the U.S. needs democracy precisely because self-governing citizens inevitably will disagree about politics. The response to polarization cannot involve calls for unanimity or abandoning partisan rivalries. A democracy without political divides is no democracy at all.
The task is to render people’s political differences more civil, to reestablish the ability to respectfully disagree. But this cannot be accomplished simply by conducting political discussions differently. Research indicates that once people are polarized, exposure even to civil expressions of the other side’s viewpoint creates more polarization.
This is a case of the crucial difference between prevention and cure. It’s not enough to pretend polarization hasn’t happened, or to behave as if it’s a minor concern. In the current situation, even sincere attempts to respectfully engage with the other side often backfire.
Yet Americans remain democratic citizens, partners in the shared project of self-government who cannot simply ignore one another.
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Polarization is a problem that cannot be solved, but only managed. It does make relations toxic among political opponents, but it also hurts relations among allies. It escalates conformity within coalitions, shrinking people’s concepts of what levels of disagreement are tolerable in like-minded groups.
It may be, then, that managing polarization could involve working to counteract conformity by engaging in respectful disagreements with people we see as allies. By taking steps to remember that politics always involves disputation, even among those who vote for the same candidates and affiliate with the same party, Americans may begin to rediscover the ability to respectfully disagree with opponents.
Robert B. Talisse does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.