Exploring the Dynamics of Polarization
Polarization is collectively and individually toxic to our capacity to “do democracy” sanely and wisely. This post details the toxic dynamics of polarization, its fertile ground for violence, and its seldom-noted roots in majoritarianism. It also describes healthy politics grounded in our unique individuality and productive interactions that help us use the resulting diversity in creative ways.
(As I began research for an article on polarization for the Integral Leadership Review, I ran into a version of the article below that I wrote ten years ago. It describes our current political culture so remarkably that I decided to share it today with only a few minor updates and edits. I hope you find it as clarifying and relevant as I did. – Tom)
How do we encounter people whom we see as significantly different from us? Do we see them as stereotypes or as unique individuals? Do we treat them as threats or as fellows?
Treating each other respectfully is the basic idea behind calls for “civility” and the dignitarian movement. Treating each other respectfully and with an open mind and heart not only allows us all to feel welcome in the world we share, but allows us to find more comprehensive truths together by understanding the puzzle-pieces each of us holds so we can discover a bigger, richer picture than each of us originally saw.
Polarization makes it hard to do that. Polarization is “the increasing concentration of groups, forces or interests around two conflicting or contrasting positions” — Us and Them, the right way and the wrong way. One of the most fundamental ways of framing political polarization is “Left vs. Right.” [See the note at the end of this post for more about maps of political beliefs.] These dichotomous terms are designed to organize forces for political battle more than for greater human understanding.
If we wish to reduce polarization, it is vital that we separate people — ourselves and others — from the ideologies and positions we’ve all gotten attached to, so that we can come together as fellow citizens to figure out the relative truth, usefulness and wisdom of various ideas and options. To do this, we need to see ourselves as citizens and people first, and partisans second.
This is not to say that things don’t look different to each of us. They do. But those differences can be assets if we can learn to see our diverse views as resources instead of sides of a battle, and notice that we simultaneously share a lot of common ground. If we open our eyes and look carefully, we will likely find that on any given issue, a different group of people agree with us. That is as it should be: It reminds us that the issues are defined more by individual viewpoints than by the Left and Right conglomerates of positions. Each individual viewpoint has gifts and limitations worthy of exploration – all of which can be grist for the mill of our collective deliberation (our collective intelligence) as we discover and develop more inclusive perspectives and options we all find truer, more useful, and more wise than what we started out with.
To the extent we can free ourselves from the polarized prisons of Left and Right, we will have more creatively productive deliberations. The reverse is true as well: To the extent we have well-designed and well-run deliberations which help us use our differences creatively in light of our common ground, we will free ourselves from those polarized prisons of Left and Right and discover the power of our uniqueness and our shared creativity.
But most of us seldom experience such remarkable conversations. More often than not, we are trapped in – and blinded by – this manipulated narrative called “Left vs. Right” that’s designed to make us feel like heroes in an epic of Good vs. Evil. It keeps us from seeing each other, from recognizing potential allies, from talking with each other or treating each other like the decent human beings most of us are. Most importantly, it keeps us from coming together to free our minds and hearts to create a society and world that work for all.
To an outsider, people battling from the Left and the Right look like two people fighting in a dangerously rocking rowboat. When the boat runs into a snag and sprouts a leak in one side, the person on the other side yells, “Look, there’s a hole in your side of the boat! Ha! Now you’ll sink!” and keeps on fighting, convinced victory is at hand. But from outside, this allegedly win/lose game looks more like a lose/lose game, especially in the long run.
Let’s dissect this Left/Right worldview and note well its many shortcomings.
ARE THESE CATEGORIES OF “LEFT” AND “RIGHT” — LIBERAL AND CONSERVATIVE — AS CLEARCUT AS THEY SEEM?
If we only consider the broad generalized outlines, we can note true differences between liberals and conservatives, just as we can describe differences between Californians and Minnesotans, whites and blacks, Christians and Jews. But these differences pale in comparison to the similarities and common interests of both groups – to say nothing of the vast diversity we find WITHIN each group and the number of people who fall outside either one. Polarization begins as we lose sight of these mind-expanding facts and believe the groups are homogenous, mutually exclusive, and dedicated to good (or evil).
In reality they are far from homogenous. Most conservatives are not rich, and most liberals are not blue collar union men. Most liberals are neither less rational nor more empathic than the average conservative. There are racists, xenophobes and culturally sensitive people on both sides. Many liberals are pro-Life. Many conservatives are pro-Choice. Individual corporations often fund the campaigns of both liberal and conservative politicians simultaneously, while many politicians in both categories have huge grassroots networks supporting them. The ACLU and the American Conservative Union (ACU) have worked together against the Patriot Act, just as both progressives and Tea Partiers have fought against NSA surveillance. Aging hippy parents work with Christian fundamentalists to maintain educational policies friendly to home schooling. Conservative Christian Pat Buchanan joined with Progressive Ralph Nader warning us about “free trade” agreements. Certain people from both the Left and the Right fight for decentralization of power and empowered communities. At the same time, certain other people from both the Left and the Right fight for greater respect for authority and greater powers for the federal government. Conservative US Senator Orrin Hatch and liberal US Senator Ron Wyden cosponsored a bill to base US health care policy on the outcomes of widespread public deliberations. People from both sides make war, protect the environment, support gay rights. These are only a few examples of the vast diversity within each worldview and vast common ground among members of every “side” – realities that become hidden as polarization heats up.
Both Left and Right parties tend to find it expedient to adopt opposing sides on many issues, claiming for themselves certain archetypal polar values, as if only they champion those values. But most Americans (and many other people across the political spectrum and around the world) value BOTH of such supposed polar opposites. Most people want order AND freedom, individual rights AND social justice; policies that are rational AND compassionate, realistic AND idealistic; a healthy economy AND a healthy environment; strong families AND a strong society; individual success AND the common good. They believe individuals should be responsible AND they believe social policies and programs can support or undermine people’s opportunities AND they believe disadvantaged people should not be neglected. They don’t believe we should have to choose between national security, on the one hand, and peace and liberty on the other. People of all persuasions suspect concentrations of power and wealth, but they don’t want to stifle entrepreneurial creativity with too much regulation. They think soldiers should be respected, but so should protesters. They feel a strong sense of patriotism, but don’t necessarily want America to be an empire dominating the world and spending so much money on its military. And most have serious concerns about the state of American democracy, from Congressional dysfunction and money in politics to the political marginalization and surveillance of almost everyone. Any reasonably open-minded examination will find vast common ground across the lines of division we have painted between us.
It isn’t that there’s no difference between Left and Right. It’s just that reality is more complex than those oversimplified political boxes makes us believe. As one bridge-building dialogue effort, Let’s Talk America, put it: “What if what unites us is more than we realize… and what divides us is less than we fear?”
HOW THE DARK SIDE OF POLARIZATION REPRODUCES ITSELF
Our polarized failure to see the nuanced, complex reality about our collective beliefs and kinship is seriously impeding our ability to meet the challenges of the 21st Century — and degrading our humanity at the same time.
- It tricks us into dehumanizing the other side – ignoring their individual uniqueness, their diversity, their humanity, their resources, their potential fellowship with us toward shared goals.
- It breaks connections between us as citizens and members of our communities, causing a loss of what some sociologists call “social capital” – the networks of relationship through which we get the non-governmental, non-profit work of our society done.
- It teaches us that we can’t disagree civilly – that we can’t respectfully “agree to disagree.” This reduces our ability to collaborate and, in particular, to engage in creative dialogues with each other in which we could together move beyond false choices and find solutions that embrace both freedom and security, a healthy economy and a healthy environment, and all the other supposed dichotomies.
- It gets us to ignore information, insights, and solutions from the other side, feeding our sloppy thinking and depriving us of the knowledge we need to understand the full reality we face when wrestling with social and environmental issues. By feeding our mutual ignorance, it undermines our society’s ability to reach high quality decisions, solutions and initiatives.
- It supports people and systems that benefit from our alienation from our fellows – people and systems that seek to manipulate us all – dividing and conquering our communities and our nation for the power and profit of the few.
- It supports the ugly side of us all – the righteously hateful, narrow-minded side that, under the right conditions – with the wrong leaders – produces the kind of civil war, genocide, terrorism and brutal oppression we have seen repeatedly all over the world.
- Through all these alienating dynamics, polarization reinforces itself. It reinforces a “you are either with us or against us” attitude that silences, alienates and depopulates the “middle” or “center” of our political life, as well as the creative edges. On both sides, this strengthens the hard-liners at the expense of moderates – leaving only the extremes active. To the extent we buy into the false dichotomy of Left and Right, our leaders can manipulate us into not relating to people on “the other side” at all, so that we soon know so little about them that we will believe ANYTHING about them. Those of us who try to bridge the gap will find the challenge overwhelming, both within ourselves and from the feedback from our fellows. Polarization begets greater polarization.
- As noted above, the extreme of polarization generate genocide, civil war, terrorism and brutal oppression. Once such violence begins, participants have an increasing psychological need to sustain the polarized logic to legitimate their own side’s increasingly unethical behaviors in the face of their increasingly dehumanized opponents. (“After all, THEY are monsters.”) When such a vicious holocaust of collective insanity comes to a close, collective denial may allow a haunted return to normal. But that leaves kindling in place for the next spark. Only deep efforts to clarify, understand and forgive can forestall renewed conflagration and heal the culture adequately. No society is immune to this collective insanity, unless it works to dissolve polarization early, with high quality dialogue.
- In summary, polarization undermines our collective resilience and tears us apart. Ultimately, it weakens us as communities and societies so that we are more vulnerable to stresses and pressures from the outside, more subject to stresses and fissures on the inside, less able to respond together creatively to the challenges and opportunities we face. As Abraham Lincoln so wisely pointed out, “A house divided against itself cannot stand.” We can help keep our house united by recognizing, valuing, and wisely using all the different parts that serve to make it functional, strong and interesting.
THE DYNAMICS OF POLARIZATION IN A MAJORITARIAN DEMOCRACY
One of my saddest realizations in researching polarization was that majoritarianism, itself – one of the fundamental principles of republican democracy – is an engine of polarization.
Although majority rule is a giant step beyond dictatorship, it has several dangerous side-effects. The U.S. founding fathers recognized and addressed one of them – the power of majorities to oppress minorities. They attempted to handle that by limiting concentrated governmental power and protected the rights of states, individuals and associations. That at least provided tools for later generations to continually address the problem.
Unfortunately, the founders of the U.S. did not also set things up to limit the tendency of majoritarianism to split the “house” of democracy in two. Here’s how it works:
- In a majoritarian democracy a proposal wins or someone is considered legitimately elected if they get over 50% of the votes. It is harder to get over 50% in a field of three or more options than in a field with only two options. So in an effort to get over 50% people gather primarily into two parties. To solidify the power of those parties, partisans voluntarily or forcefully suppress complexity and diversity (the full range of information, perspectives, options, etc.) so there always seem to be only two opposing alternatives for everyone to rally around. (This suppression of diversity and shades of disagreement can be reversed through processes like the Public Conversation Project, where participants are encouraged to voice their individual shades of difference with the official “party line” they’ve needed to espouse for the sake of political solidarity – or more generally through processes like Dynamic Facilitation which listen deeply to the full diversity of individual perspectives and feelings.)
- Partisan leaders invoke archetypal energies for the battle they are waging by making the opposite side seem wrong, stupid, insane or even evil. The other side is painted as powerful and united – so that “we” must be (or at least SEEM to be) even more powerful and united. Therefore, no public dissent among us is allowed (regardless of the actual diversity among us).
- At first these dynamics increase the APPARENT (though not real) homogeneity of each side. But this APPARENT uniformity evolves into ACTUAL uniformity by decreasing the exposure of each side to the arguments and people on the other side. That decreases the ACTUAL diversity of opinion on each side, since each is becoming more righteously closed-minded and conformist about their own perspective and ignorant of the other’s. Gregory Bateson calls this “schismogenesis” – the systemic co-creation of division (schism).
- As the apparent extremism of each side increases, the other side is able to paint itself as moderate in the face of the other’s extremism.
- The more extreme each side’s views get, the more they think that the media, government, academia, etc., are controlled by the other side – which, in turn, feeds even more extreme views and actions, in an effort to have some impact on the monolith that partisans think they face. (In many cases we might more accurately view these institutions as controlled by interests that aren’t on the political spectrum, per se, but who use ideological conflict to manipulate populations or the policy apparatus for non-ideological power and profit.)
In summary, whatever reality Left and Right have gets solidified into dangerous polarization by our majoritarian system and those who benefit from our mutual isolation. Polarization grows through “reinforcing feedback dynamics” that work like this: partisan solidarity reduces a broad population’s mutual understanding, which makes it easier for partisans to stereotype each other, which makes people not want to reach across the growing divides, which in turn leads to no contact with – and fear of – the other side, which strengthens partisan solidarity, etc., etc. The cycle repeats, generating progressively more alienation as it goes.
MOVING BEYOND THE LEFT/RIGHT TRANCE
The solution to all this is not to set aside all our differences. The solution is to sort out our real individual differences from the artificial, overly generalized dichotomies of polarization – and then to bring those real differences into respectful, creative dialogue that honors our common ground and seeks mutual benefit and the common good.
The Left/Right frame of reference muddies our understanding of the actual diversity of our viewpoints and the full range of our options. It supports sloppy thinking that messes up truly useful distinctions that we could all learn from. Furthermore, the Left/Right frame of reference interferes with productive inquiry by motivating us to assert, attack and defend positions rather than share in exploration. It impedes our ability to show up in our full uniqueness and diversity, ready to engage with each other creatively in search of larger truths. It acts as if there are only two views/options/perspectives and that each of us is fully aligned with one of them. This is a self-reinforcing, life-suffocating lie.
We can break out of this Left/Right trance. We can free ourselves from culturally reinforced broad generalizations about how whole masses of us feel about whole bundles of issues. We can talk to each other, read each other’s information, actively explore for allies “on the other side”, and learn to become more nuanced (or be able to talk in less black-and-white terms) about our own views. We can support bridge-building conversations and public dialogues about specific issues, which expose citizens from across the political spectrum to other people, information and ideas in contexts where they can expand their thinking, build relationships, and move ahead together towards positive social change.
None of this means we should stop our currently partisan work for the world. There is no reason we can’t do it all. That is, we can simultaneously
- fight for our respective sides;
- honor the right of (and need for) all views to be heard;
- publicly acknowledge how our addiction to partisanship limits us; and
- create opportunities, activities and institutions that support our ability to move beyond “sides” and “positions” to explore the whole picture together, considering each view as a piece of the picture puzzle we’re all trying to put together.
Many approaches to making progress on this last approach (4) are described on the National Coalition for Dialogue and Deliberation blog and resource database. The overall field of “transpartisan” politics is explored in articles here:
Some current individual initiatives include
- Living Room Conversations
- Public Conversations Project
- No Labels
- Civil Politics
- The Citizens Campaign
- The Coffee Party
To the extent we succeed in building a powerful culture of dialogue and deliberation, we will probably feel less need to fight each other as partisans. We will wake up, more and more, to the fact that we are all in this together. We will learn, step by step, how to generate the collective wisdom, will and action needed to create a decent world together where our children can all live well together for endless generations to come.
May we find such wisdom to pass on to them, that they can build on and pass on to their children.
* For explorations of the history and diverse meanings of the terms “Left” and “Right,” see the Wikipedia essay on the topic. For expanded models of political diversity, see the Wikipedia article on political spectrums and “The American Political Landscape” (below) by Eric Selbin and Ron Steiner included in an article by Jay Walljasper which was featured in UTNE READER, November/December 1991, Issue 48.
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