Polarization: Are we our own worst enemy?

Posted 2/6/20

by Pete Mazzaccaro In his new book, “Why We’re Polarized,” journalist Ezra Klein explores the big question of our times. It’s a question that has captured a great deal of our attention, with …

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Polarization: Are we our own worst enemy?

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by Pete Mazzaccaro

In his new book, “Why We’re Polarized,” journalist Ezra Klein explores the big question of our times. It’s a question that has captured a great deal of our attention, with dozens of books and thousands of articles and op-eds on the matter. Why are we so divided?

The signs are everywhere. There’s hardly an issue that doesn’t seem to split the population into two active, angry sides. Americans have largely sorted themselves into two political camps that don’t even seem to share two sets of realities. This was evident for anyone following the Senate impeachment hearings of President Trump these last few weeks.

Klein’s book is a thorough examination of the question, but one of the more interesting “big-picture” takeaways he explores is the work of two political scientists, Alan Abramowitz and Steven Webster, who found negative partisanship is a greater motivating force in American politics than partisanship.

Negative partisanship is the phenomenon by which voter choice is driven not by identification with the party they are voting for but is driven by negative feelings towards the party they are voting against.

“So here, then, is the last fifty years of American politics summarized: we became more consistent in the party we vote for not because we came to like our party more — indeed, we’ve come to like the parties we vote for less — but because we came to dislike the opposing party more. Even as hope and change sputter, fear and loathing proceed,” Klein writes.

To me, this is a simple yet remarkably persuasive explanation for a lot of what we see in all sorts of political behavior – from voting to posting provocative memes on Facebook. Study after study shows that American faith in institutions is at an all time low. More and more Americans identify as Independent than as a Democrat or Republican. And yet, we see people more strident in their voting habits. We are less likely than ever to split a ticket. How many votes cast for Trump were really votes cast against Clinton?

What we can do in the face of this coarsening is not nearly as simple. Klein makes several suggestions with which I agree: eliminating the electoral college and the Senate filibuster, granting statehood to Puerto Rico and Washington D.C., and reforming our very gerrymandered House Districts. All of these are moves to make government more representative of a rapidly changing population.

It’s hard to see, though, how these moves would change the fact that many Americans see other Americans precisely that way: as “other.” When a cross section of the American people believe that the Democratic Party is a greater threat to America than Russia, we have a fundamental cultural problem that is going to require more than structural government reform.

We need a way to convince ourselves that fighting each other is not in our best interest. We’re not really our own worst enemy. We need to stop behaving as if we are.

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