What’s Driving America’s Polarization?

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….


  1. “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.”

    America’s polarization can be summarized by looking back at the transitions from Republican to Democrat to Republican to Democrat to Republican to Democrat beginning with George H.W. Bush and to the Trump deconstructive leavings President Biden is trying to find the correct survival mode for this slim Democratic majority. We are always trying to clean up their destruction which we can compare to Hurricane Katrina and the collapsed levees on the Gulf Coast which George W. summarized with his comment, “Good job, Brownie.” and ending the Iraq War after five months with war continuing to rage and spread. They do not end one disaster before creating the next one. Today, Trump is still reaping his “spoils of war” as he continues to gather strength and millions in donations to incite the followers of his “big lie” as Republicans maintain their control from their minority position.

    “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.”

    “What’s Driving America’s Polarization?” Very simply it is the ability of Republicans to unite and organize as one entity while the Democrats are still infighting and aiding the Republican control which will put Trump back in the White House in 2024.

  2. JoAnn Green , you are , sadly , correct in your evaluation, from where I sit . Yes , unless he us incarcerated , I see DT being “re-elected” in 2024 .

  3. It was odd, I watched college football on TV yesterday, and CBS ran a political ad from a nonprofit that was a complete lie. I don’t even remember the lie or the nonprofit. All I could think is that CBS is blaming Facebook for providing misinformation to viewers when spreading propaganda themselves. I would gather that 98% of all media is lying in this country.

    How do I know?

    Because those who challenge the power of the true Oligarchy are jailed and marginalized, look at the Julian Assange or Steven Donziger case. Look at all the whistleblowers we jail in this country for telling inconvenient truths about what our government is doing in our name.

    Poll after poll shows the people don’t trust their government. Trust in government is almost in the single digits. As Einstein pointed out in 1949, we, the people, cannot differentiate the truth from the false. We, the people, cannot make an informed decision. We’re delusional, but not of our own making. It’s intentional. It’s by design.

    The problem with being delusional and choices are unless we know the truth, we’ll continue making poor choices. That’s Logic 100.

    I’m reading a book from an American financier and journalist about China, and he’s telling me the truth. It doesn’t remotely resemble the manufactured bullshit I get from our media and politicians. Unless I am adequately informed, or we the people are correctly informed, we cannot make good decisions. How can we possibly be told voters if we are lied to consistently?

    We on the left look at Fox New but MSNBC is also bullshit. CNN is bullshit. The New York Times and WaPo are state propaganda. Half-truths or lying by omission is still propaganda.

    What will the product be if we advise people to be critical thinkers but only give them propaganda to read?

  4. Maybe we should start by removing “One Nation under God” from our money and our civic lives and replacing it with the original “e pluribus unum” as our national motto. As usual there’s a song running through my mind. It’s an old Dylan favorite called “With God on Our Side.”

  5. I’ve been reading what I call “Howard Zinn” type books lately, starting with The Indispensible Zen and currently The People’s History, but also “The Warmth of Many Suns” and Caste, by Isabelle Wilkerson, “White Trash – The 400 Year History of Class in America”, and a few others. It is painfully apparent from this reading that while we have had a philosophy of “Out of Many Wone”, the reality has been that the only many that could become part of the one were those who could pass as white and middle class. That has never included poor white people, “White Trash”, who have always been with us. Besides the obvious problems of Fox and other right wing news outlets, the other thing that has happened, which started in the early to mid 1800s, was women teaching school, and in the process teaching their values. It was women, admittedly a small percentage of women, who have been the major disruptors, in the 1800s with suffragism and the anti slavery movement, and the discontents of the 1960 and 70s begain in the schools in the 1950s with the teaching of values that good people are caring people. And we (I was born in 1950) grew up looking around and not seeing that caring in the culture we were growing up in. The movements, starting with civil rights in the late 40s and 50s, followed by the Feminist movement, the anti war movement, the disability rights movement, etc, led to people who were not supposed to be of the many becoming one, and those who didn’t get the message in those decades are the right wingers fighting the progress we have made, and being victimized by right wing media.

  6. Yesterday, while watching a Big Ten matchup (on Fox), I saw an ad with a woman looking frantic with a phone in her hand. The ad claimed the “the left” is putting the “squeeze” on Medicare. I was so dumbfounded, I didn’t catch who the sponsor was! As long as this kind of propaganda and disinformation reigns, I don’t know how the polarization lifts.

  7. Todd; for some reason I am not receiving all of the Facebook posts which are the subject of the whistleblower’s charges and the other accusations against Facebook. I occasionally receive a Republican post with lies on my page which I block; I do receive foolish posts and the amount profane language is questionable. I’m not complaining; I do wonder, if there is so much posted, why I am not receiving posts to destroy trust in our government and who the recipients are. Truly I’m just askin’

  8. Polarization is the perfect environment for the billionaire class to dismantle the administrative state leading to no regulations and greater upwards distribution of wealth. In other words. it’s all about money.

  9. e pluribus unum sounds exactly like magats wealth distribution in America since, at least, the days of Ronnie Raygun.

  10. Barry Goldwater’s acceptance speech in 1964: ” “I would remind you that extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice!” “And let me remind you also that moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue!”

    Although Goldwater was crushed in the 1964 election, the sentiment lived on in GOP. Nixon, Ford and Bush the Elder and Bush the Younger managed the facade of moderation. The GOP picked off the bible thumper’s and the NRA types.

    The Democrats have been portrayed as godless with no redeeming values.

    The Democrats must be stopped at all costs, including rigging election results in the GOP’s favor. Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice! Conversely those Republicans who did execute their duties to count the vote as honestly as they could are now vilified. Moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue!

    The January Coup transformed the ideology of Goldwater’s statement into action. Following the law to affirm Biden’s win in the Electoral College – moderation I suppose- resulted in a gallows being erected to hang Mike Pence.

    It must be obvious to all there is no compromise with the Trumper’s. I amazed at all the screaming, wailing and gnashing of teeth by the Reactionaries over having the kids in schools and teachers to wear a mask.

  11. There is the future coming at us that we know, due to the explosion in human knowledge of the universe, will be based on a much different human situation than the past. We also have the past fading into the nostalgia of selective memory of the good things while the bad slip away into history.

    We each are presupposed to our diversity of opinions about which to pay more attention to. Science tells me that adaption is a survival issue and the most fundamental problem life requires us to solve. The imperfectly remembered past is a distraction from that because there are no possibilities of its return.

    Entertainment media distracts us by reinforcing our happy center of times when life seemed less challenging while we looked forward only to endless comfort.

    The meme “woke” is a real thing as in “wake up people”. We can, if we choose to, adapt beginning today instead of dreaming through the opportunity.

  12. “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.” Yes, but the “I” is prevailing – it takes precedence over common beliefs, values, courtesy, civility. It is not only the Right; “identity politics” and “cancel culture” are variations of the same disease.

  13. Steve Bannon is peddling evil to pad his pension. Trump is dying from chronic self inflicted wounds. Political vigilantes have become frantic. Sounds to me as if their final stand is coming. Let them fall on their “own sword”. The country needed Biden as the experienced and knowledgeable political leader in a rebuilding transition government. He will need to let go and announce retirement by 2023 and give support to a future younger smarter and effective communicator that gives fresh meaning and substance guided by our Constitution and common decency for all.

  14. There is no doubt in my mind that straight white males who are Christian evangelicals now feel existentially threatened because their white male privilege has been eroded by those who believe in equal protection under the law. They fear that America will not keep its democratic Republic if women, LBGT people, people of color, people of other faith traditions become the majority of Americans. What they do not understand is that our democracy is based on democratic principles, political structures that are independent of one’s culture, race etc.

    On top of this the corporate oligarchy has sent their jobs overseas and left them unemployed, unable to provide for their families. Their whole family structure is threatened. The men want to be the economic providers while the women remain home makers. And, in fact, when one person chooses to be a homemaker, that person can save the family money i.e by sewing clothes, gathering coupons, searching the internet for good vacation deals etc. So, if they want that family structure, they can have it. Of course, if he dies, the widow is cast adrift with her children because she has been out of the work force. So,he’d better have a lot of life insurance and no problems with addiction, disability, veteran PTSD etc.

    Since I grew up in the 50’s, I remember that family structure. But many women are not meant to be home makers(and that profession requires a multitude of skills that are undervalued by the corporate oligarchy.) Many of us women suffered from depression because we could not actualize our full potential. Many of the men became absent fathers due to working so many hours. Some of them died young due to cardiac disease.

    Those white men threatened by diversity do not see the disadvantages of such a “traditional” family structure. That family structure was no guarantee of stability especially after we stopped having an extended family structure.

    The corporate oligarchy with its systems of bigotry remains in power because they like to divide us and so conquer us. Christian evangelicals lost in identity politics don’t see the oligarchy’s strategy to fuel our divisiveness.

    The challenge for the democratic party is to create a unified front in the midst of so much diversity, to be able to create good policies that allow compromise between progressives and moderates, to lay down their individual agendas for the greater good.

  15. I recall that sometime during the 1970’s I had a political discussion with my dad, who was a hereditary Republican. I told him I didn’t think the United States of America was the private property of the Republican Party, I have never deviated from that opinion since then.

  16. Ms. Kennedy

    It might yield mental fruit to consider that much of the White Evangelical anger might be properly directed against the so-called Progressive Movement, because it espouses so many dangerous ideas and spreads them among the young: denial of natural sex behaviors, rooted in deep evolutionary pressures (which continue today), denial of god-seeking behavior, denial of hierarchy, climate catastrophism, the nanny state (excess entitlement),
    denial of violence in black culture. The list goes on.

    Progressives are as adept at stupid egotistical excess as the right.
    The media feeds best on these excesses.

  17. Organized religion is a real threat to democracy, since those who claim piousness are not.

  18. To quote the Anglican scholar June Boyce-Tillman, “Unity is not uniformity.” The political right doesn’t get that.

  19. Fox “News,” Facebook, and their ilk that spread disinformation must be completely eradicated. They exist motivated only by greed and accumulation of power.

    We must re-frame all the anti-government/anti-science/anti-democracy propaganda:

    Regulations are Protections.

    Regulations protect us from the greedy self-serving among us.

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