I recently “guest lectured” in a colleague’s class; my assignment was to address the issue of America’s extreme polarization. As you might imagine, that’s a topic that could consume several hours, if not days, of discussion.
I had twenty minutes….
I began by sharing my version of The American Idea—the conviction that allegiance to an overarching governing philosophy–one that that emphasized behavior rather than identity- could create unity from what has always been a diverse citizenry. This nation was not based upon geography, ethnicity or conquest, but on a theory of social organization, a philosophy of governance that was meant to facilitate e pluribus unum—out of the many, one. The American Idea set up an enduring conversation about the proper balance between “I” and “we”–between individual rights on the one hand and the choices and passions of the majority on the other.
Admittedly, that approach doesn’t seem to be working right now.
As I told the students, I think it’s important to note two things about our current divisions: our political polarization has been asymmetric—during my lifetime, the GOP has moved far, far to the right, abandoning genuinely conservative positions in favor of authoritarianism and White Supremacy. When that movement first began, public notions of what constituted the “middle” prompted the Democratic party to move to the right also; what is today being called a move to the left is really a return to its original, center-left orientation.
Today’s GOP is a cohesive, White Supremicist cult. For a number of reasons, the Democratic party is a much bigger tent than the GOP—making the forging of party consensus very difficult.
So yes, we are polarized. At the same time, however, it’s also important to recognize that many of America’s apparent social divisions are exaggerated by media outlets trying to grab our attention and by people pursuing political agendas. (The current coverage of fights over Roe v. Wade is an example. Polling tells us that three-quarters of Americans support Roe–hardly the even division often suggested by the media.)
The research is pretty clear about the source of our current divisions: White Christian Americans—predominantly male—are incredibly threatened by the social and demographic changes they see around them. White Evangelicals overwhelmingly tell researchers that only White Christians can be “true Americans.” Their belief that White Christian males are entitled to social dominance—to “ownership” of the country– is being threatened by the increasing improvements in the positions of “uppity” women and people of color.
There are other factors, of course, but the underlying reality is frantic resistance to social change by Americans who harbor racial resentments, misogyny and homophobia.
It would be hard to overstate the impact of our current media environment, which enables confirmation bias and allows us to choose our own realities. The death of local journalism, and the influence of Fox News and its clones, are huge contributors, and recent revelations about the business model of Facebook and other social media demonstrates the impact those platforms have and their role in disseminating misinformation, conspiracy theories and bigotry.
To be fair, media bubbles aren’t the only bubbles Americans occupy. I’ve posted before about “The Big Sort,” the”Density Divide,” and the immense and growing gaps between urban and rural Americans.
I continue to believe that a majority of Americans are sane and reasonable, but several painfully outdated governance systems have enabled a not-nearly-so-sane minority to exercise disproportionate power. Those outdated systems include the Electoral College, gerrymandering, and the filibuster–not to mention that each state gets two senators regardless of population (by 2040, about 70% of Americans are expected to live in the 15 largest states. They will have only 30 senators representing them, while the remaining 30% of Americans will have 70 senators representing them.)
Our current low-key civil war has illustrated our problems. How we fix them is another matter….