According to a familiar diagnosis, contemporary democracy is plagued by partisan divisions. In the United States and elsewhere, these have become so severe that officials and citizens who do not share a party affiliation cannot find any common ground whatsoever. Thus they cannot compromise, cooperate, or even productively communicate with one another. The result is political deadlock, what is often called polarization.
In order to flourish, a democratic society needs to get things done—decisions must be made, policies must be enacted, offices must be filled, and so on. But if it is to get things done, it needs to sustain conditions under which political rivals can cooperate. When a polity is severely polarized, its citizens and officials are convinced that their political opponents aren’t worth talking to, let alone cooperating with. Indeed, under conditions of polarization, partisans come to regard the ordinary give-and-take of democratic politics as unacceptable capitulation and surrender rather than as cooperation. Thus in addition to deadlock, polarization fosters political resentment and antagonism.
Everyone seems to agree that polarization poses a serious problem for democracy. Yet the problem runs deeper than is commonly acknowledged. Some research suggests that, in addition to breeding gridlock and antipathy, polarization is also self-reinforcing. Once we come to see our political opponents as so misguided as to be unworthy of cooperative engagement, we also come to embrace an exaggerated assessment of their flaws. More specifically, we come to see their political misjudgments as indications of a broader moral depravity and cognitive dysfunction. Our political rivals increasingly strike us as not merely mistaken about politics, but also craven in all facets of life. Perhaps unsurprisingly, as partisan divisions intensify, we also become more likely to regard our political opposition as dangerous, dishonest, stupid, and threatening.
At the same time, we come to regard more and more of what they do as expressions of their misguided politics. Hence as our estimation of the opposition’s flaws amplifies, we also come to regard their distorted political commitments as the root explanation of the broader defects we find in their lives. Accordingly, much of what passes for political critique today is actually directed towards mocking the opposing side’s nonpolitical behavior. To take one example, consider how much of our political rancor targets the opposition’s consumer habits: where they shop (Walmart or Whole Foods?), what cars they drive (pickup or hybrid?), the clothes they wear (camo or yoga pants?), what sports they follow (NASCAR or soccer?), how they spend their weekends (fishing or antiquing?). And on it goes. Polarization thus does not merely magnify our political disagreements into unbridgeable divisions; it also leads us to regard a large portion of our fellow citizens as entirely alien, inscrutable, and intolerable.
Once again, if a democracy is to flourish, it needs to sustain the conditions under which politically divided citizens can nonetheless regard each other as equals. For democracy itself is premised on the recognition of the fundamental equality of all citizens. It is only in light of that basic commitment that it makes sense to apportion to each citizen an equal share of political power. Yet polarization incites us to regard our political opposition as unworthy of equal political power; we come to see them as mere obstructions in the way of getting the political results we favor. In attacking our capacity to regard our rivals as our equals, polarization thus erodes our ability to enact collective self-government. Consequently, polarization is democratically degenerative.
A common prescription for polarization is bipartisanship. The thought is that our political divides can be eased when we each “reach across the aisle” and actively seek out common ground. Sometimes bipartisanship is proposed narrowly, as a strategy for public officials. It counsels that in crafting policy, representatives should try to secure the support of members of their political opposition. In other contexts, though, bipartisanship is presented more as an attitude to be embodied by officials and citizens alike. Bipartisanship in this broader sense is the disposition to emphasize our commonality as citizens of the same democratic community, thereby ultimately united in shared ambitions, despite ordinary political rifts. Bipartisanship in this latter sense involves something beyond a strategy for achieving political results; it identifies a civic ethos appropriate for democratic citizens as such. And who would deny that this civic ethos is indeed essential for healthy democracy?
Still, challenges remain. Note that even when bipartisanship is understood in the broader sense, the prescription for cultivating it does not differ fundamentally from what the more narrow conception endorses. It is claimed that the civic ethos of bipartisanship is nurtured when citizens in their day-to-day lives “reach across the aisle” by devising ways to interact fruitfully with those who embrace political views that oppose their own. Accordingly, multiple initiatives aimed at restoring civility across political fissures have emerged, all rooted in the contention that polarization will be dissolved once citizens are brought together in properly constructed forums to discuss the issues that divide them. Indeed, there is now a sizeable industry of researchers and facilitators devoted to endeavors of this kind.
The objective of assisting citizens in mending the political fractures wrought by polarization is undoubtedly noble. In fact, given the present condition of democratic politics, it is necessary. Moreover, the general idea that current democratic dysfunctions can be addressed by restructuring the venues in which citizens interact is undeniable. However, the initiatives on offer tend to conflate cure and prevention. The task of remedying polarization is distinct from that of preventing it. Forums designed to facilitate civil political disagreement are probably helpful in preventing polarization from taking hold of citizens, but this does not entail that such forums are effective means for depolarizing citizens who are already in its grip. There is some research suggesting that, once polarization has taken hold of a population, exposure to the other side’s viewpoint, even in non-confrontational settings, tends to reinforce polarized attitudes among opposed partisans and exacerbate political divisions. When this particular preventative measure is applied among polarized citizens as if it were a cure, it is not merely ineffective; it actually aggravates the disease of polarization.
So the project of repairing our democracy by curating forums for less factious political interaction is seemingly off on the wrong foot. Still, polarization posts a significant threat to democracy. The problem cannot be ignored. What can be done?
The first thing to recognize is that our polarization problem cannot find its solution within efforts to craft venues for better politics. This is because the dysfunctions we face lie with the fact that politics has colonized the entirety of our social lives. To explain, the social spaces we inhabit—our workplaces, neighborhoods, schools, markets, places of worship, and parks—are increasingly sorted according to our political affiliations. This means that our ordinary social interactions tend to put us in contact only with those who are politically much like ourselves. What’s more, we as individuals have come to organize more and more of our everyday lives around our political loyalties. Not only do our rivals assign political significance to our daily routine; we do too. We tend to understand our consumer behavior and broader lifestyle choices to be ways of signaling our political identities. So we take our decision to shop at Whole Foods (or Walmart) to be an expression of our political values. We wear camouflage apparel as a means of providing a public representation of our political identity. And the same goes for those of us who carry our sundry belongings around in the latest MSNBC tote, which revealingly bears the slogan “this is who we are.” Consequently, not only are our social environments politically uniform, they have also become spaces where the uniformity is made manifest to us. The categories and travails of democratic politics perpetually surround us, yet our surroundings are increasingly politically homogeneous and thus improperly democratic. Our social worlds reinforce our polarization.
We can now acknowledge that the trouble with pursuing bipartisanship in response to polarization is that the endeavor still puts politics at the center of our collective lives. However, the problem of polarization is in part the problem of the comprehensive infiltration of politics into our social lives. The problem of polarization thus does not find its solution in measures by which we can enact better politics—the problem is politics itself. To be sure, the bipartisan civic ethos is an indispensable ingredient of a flourishing democracy. But it cannot be cultivated under conditions where everything we do is plausibly regarded an expression of our political loyalties. When politics is all we ever do together, our efforts to repair democracy by means of strategies for enacting better politics are doomed simply to backfire. What is required instead is the reclaiming of regions of social space for shared activities that are in no way political, occasions for cooperative endeavors in which the participants’ political affiliations are not merely suppressed or bracketed, but irrelevant and out of place. If you now find yourself wondering whether such collaborations could possibly exist, you have placed your finger firmly on the problem of polarization. For polarization has led not only to the colonization of our social environments by politics, it also has enabled politics to seize and confine our social imagination. That we must struggle to conceptualize avenues of social collaboration that are not structured around our political identities is the fullest manifestation of the problem of polarization. To frame the upshot somewhat paradoxically, if we want to repair our democracy, we need to focus our collective attention elsewhere.
This article previously appeared at 3:AM Magazine.
Featured image is A luncheon. The artist, his wife, and the writer Otto Benzon, by Peder Severin Krøyer