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, 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.
Healthy disagreement is beneficial
If the ideological differences between opposing parties are large, they can produce logjams, standoffs and inflexibility in 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, revealing truth amid differing opinions.
Belief polarization, also called group polarization, is different. Interaction with like-minded others transforms people into more extreme versions of themselves. It also leads people to embrace more intensely negative feelings toward people with different views. 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 society sorts itself into “liberal” and “conservative” lifestyles, people grow more invested in policing the borders between “us” and “them.” This hostility toward those who disagree makes them 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.
Belief polarization is toxic for citizens’ relations with one another. But the large-scale dysfunction lies in how political and belief polarization work together in a mutually reinforcing loop. When the citizenry is divided into clans fixated on animus, politicians have incentives to amplify hostility.
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. 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. 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.”
Disagreeing — with our allies
Still, democracy presupposes political disagreement. As James Madison observed, the U.S. needs democracy precisely because self-governing citizens inevitably will disagree about politics. A democracy without political divides is no democracy at all.
The task is 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. 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.
Polarization is a problem that cannot be solved, but only managed. It does make relations toxic among political opponents, but it also 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 is W. Alton Jones Professor of Philosophy, Vanderbilt University.
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