At this point in the American story, it’s a cliché to say that we as a country are politically polarized. It seems like relatively few of us want to leave our own media echo chambers and our own groups of like-minded voters to discuss genuine differences civilly and productively.
Moving beyond extremes
Historians tell us that extremist beliefs, political arguments, and even acts of political violence, are nothing new in the United States. In 1787, James Madison was already warning about the dangers when there is “violence of faction.”
But it feels to many of us that, thanks to pervasive cynicism and lack of trust in institutions, our increasingly shorter fuses in a time of economic and social upheavals, and the ability of social media to spread misinformation and conspiracy theories, things have never been worse.
Signs of polarization in a society include suspicion; volatility, in which even casual interactions across divides can erupt into angry confrontations; and the fallacy of over-simplifying complex people and issues into an “us” versus “them” situation.
Is there a realistic path forward where Americans with opposing views can come together in peaceful dialogue, reach workable compromises, leave some of our collective emotional baggage behind, and create a better future for the next generation? The most viable solution centers on building understanding and educating for democracy.
Right-wing extremism takes center stage
We should first take note that, at least in today’s political climate, right-wing extremism has become far more violent and dangerous than the left-of-center variety. While individuals or groups espousing virtually any cause are capable of spewing violent rhetoric, and may even commit acts of violence, recent studies show that the weight of the most violent extremism in the U.S. today leans heavily to the right.
A 2022 poll conducted by the Southern Poverty Law Center found that extremist right-wing beliefs are becoming more prevalent through the general population. An increasing number of respondents actually said that violence toward political opponents is acceptable, and that LGBTQ people and other persecuted minority groups present a danger to others.
The survey additionally revealed a growing number of people on the right who support the conspiracy theory belief in the “great replacement theory.” This is the unfounded white supremacist concept that there exists a deliberate policy of encouraging immigration and demographic change in order to reduce the white, conservative-voting population in the U.S. Almost 7 out of every 10 Republicans who took the survey said they agree to some extent with this idea. This dangerous notion has fueled recent mass shootings in the U.S. and abroad.
Extremism on the right typically attacks more vulnerable groups, notably including LGBTQ people simply trying to live their lives in peace. Right-wing individuals and groups have also targeted numerous poll workers and elections officials with violent threats merely for doing their jobs.
But also startling and disturbing to liberals will be the survey’s finding that Democratic-leaning men under age 50 were the most likely of any group to accept the idea of political assassination of a person “threatening” the nation or democracy. So none of us is immune from the dangerous human tendency to allow anger and distrust to overcome basic decency.
Turning down the heat
Some experts point out that it isn’t polarization per se that’s destroying us, but rather “affective polarization,” in which negative feelings toward perceived enemies become so strong that they make it impossible to work together to solve common problems. Affective polarization also makes it more likely that people with extreme sentiments will flout laws designed to preserve the common good, as we saw in the horrific spectacle of January 6, 2021.
We can’t go on this way. But what can we do to turn down the heat on extremism and potential violence?
Political scientists have noted several important long-term solutions.
One insight encourages us to understand the power of influence. Studies show that people’s opinions can be strongly influenced by others whom they view as being part of their own culture, with enough in common to merit emulation even if they differ on some issues. On the other hand, if people view others as diametrically opposed to themselves in terms of culture, they are more likely to completely reject the possibility of learning from these “others.” Keep this in mind when well-meaning commentators encourage exchanges of opposing views among groups who already view one another with hostility or distrust.
A recent Brookings Institution study found that, when people are “stubbornly intolerant,” greater exposure to views they find offensive can actually increase polarization.
One way to decrease polarization might therefore involve educating moderate members of particular communities on the practical value of tolerance, dialogue, and compromise in a democracy, allowing them to serve as influencers and stabilizing forces among people in their own social networks. In its efforts to combat polarization locally, the City of Albuquerque recommends supporting the “non-polarized middle,” people who can serve as voices of reason and moderation, who can help build connections.
The vital role of education
Education is of the utmost importance in minimizing polarization. An overhaul of our civics curricula is obviously in order. And, since the 2016 election of the supremely polarizing Donald Trump as president, some social teachers have stepped out of carefully cultivated “neutral” roles in order to avoid the facile “both-sidesing” of issues that affect our ability to continue to function as a democracy. For example, they are countering misinformation, disinformation, and racism head-on in the classroom.
Teachers who choose this path believe it’s important to develop students’ critical thinking skills. And the only way to do that is to teach a healthy respect for the facts of history and current events, regardless of whether those facts show existing power structures in a less-than-rosy light.
A 2019 paper published by the University at Albany, State University of New York, describes how high school students in an enhanced government studies class requiring them to research, debate, then vote on controversial issues became more open-minded politically when encouraged to explore a diversity of viewpoints. Students who received more encouragement to be partisan were less likely to adopt an attitude of political open-mindedness.
Part of the hard work of educating people of every age for democracy, other experts report, involves learning—often with the help of neutral facilitators—to talk across differences and recalibrate distorted opinions about people on the “opposite” side. It involves becoming more in tune with our own biases in order to question and modify them. And it includes developing the wisdom to realize that narratives about extreme polarization can in themselves become self-fulfilling prophecies.
There will always be some people who choose to live—and, tragically, to die or to harm others—in service to their extremist views. It’s up to the rest of us to move the needle back toward tolerance by living and modeling it—and by not backing away from a frank discussion of both our polarization and our common humanity.