While today’s polarization feels more extreme and threatening than ever, political polarization is not new. Consider the more fundamental and more threatening partisanship between Adam’s Federalists and Jefferson’s Republicans in the 1790’s. These two coalitions came close to killing the republic in its infancy. They disagreed on as fundamental a question as whether the republic should be democratic, according to historian Gordon Wood in his latest book, “Friends Divided: John Adams and Thomas Jefferson”. Yet, somehow these diametrically opposed groups managed to find areas of agreement to move the country forward.
Political polarization is part of our history and has waxed and waned over our almost 250-years. Detailed tracking since 1879 shows polarization in Congress increased around the Civil War, WWI, WWII, and during the civil rights movement and Vietnam War. Congressional polarization declined after that and was fairly stable until the late 1970’s, when it began increasing steadily. Polarization in the House and Senate is now at the highest level since the end of Reconstruction. Additionally, the percentage of moderate Representatives and Senators has plummeted to about 10% in both Chambers. From the 1870’s to the 1970’s centrists in the House were 80-95% of our Representatives. The Senate, on the other hand, was mostly partisan until the 1930’s and became partisan again in the 1990’s. In both houses, Democrats have remained mostly centrists since the 1930’s.
Although political polarization is not new to Americans, over the past few years 53% of us feel talking about politics with people we disagree with is generally stressful and frustrating. 57% of Democrats feel stress and frustration vs. 49% of Republicans, according to Pew Research. 63% of Americans say that when discussing politics with people they disagree with they find they usually have less in common politically than they thought.
Many of us have experienced one of these painful political discussions over the last few years. Why is it so difficult to debate politics? Research shows that polarizing topics evoke feelings of anxiety and threat and put people on guard. Second, many political beliefs are based on moral convictions. And if someone considers their position to be a question of right versus wrong, they’re less likely to want to interact with a person who disagrees. Finding compromise or consensus when people start the conversation angry or feeling threatened is difficult – exclusion or avoidance is simply easier. Sometimes we simply need to agree to disagree and instead focus on finding common ground, shared bonds or morals to strengthen trust and relationships.
Reducing America’s polarization is not an easy fix. The problem is created by complex economic, social and geographic divides that are not going to change anytime soon. There are many ideas for reducing polarization, including reforming the election process, increasing voter turnout, reforming campaign finance and reforming the legislative process. All of these ideas, and many others, may have merit that warrant investigation, proposals and ultimately voting. But all of these ideas are long-term solutions that will take a great deal of time, effort and money over many, many years.
In the meantime, we can all do something to reduce America’s polarization. We can each decide not to harbor animosity toward those that disagree with us. We can decide to turn down the temperature on our political conflicts and commit to bringing people together. Empathy and respect for one another are critical to easing polarization, according to a Stanford sociologist. We have to take time to really listen to one another, to understand one another’s values and to think creatively about how to find ways to agree with those with very different political and moral commitments. It’s the only way we can knit our country back together.
If you want to do something about polarization in your community, try learning more about how to depolarize with tools like Open Mind. Or find an organization that moderates meetings with people from the entire political spectrum to teach them how to communicate and work together to find areas of agreement. Here are just a few examples of NGO’s trying to depolarize their communities:
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