How We Got Here

I was recently asked to “guest lecture”about political polarization to an undergraduate class.

I began by conceding that, from where I sit, it’s getting worse, not better. I noted that we now have businesses expressly catering to the Right-wing: social media platforms like Truth Social and Rumble, coffee sellers like Black Rifle, crypto start-ups like MAGA and Coin, and even investment funds–Strive is an anti-ESG fund created by Vivek Ramaswamy, the annoying presidential candidate, that has now exceeded a billion dollars in assets.

These are businesses specifically catering to people who want to ban books, shove gay people back in the closet, and return women and people of color to second-class citizenship. It pains me to say this, because I spent 35 years of my adult life as a very active Republican—I even won a Congressional Republican primary in 1980—but Republicans have devolved from a political party into a cult, and membership in that cult has become their core identity. As we saw during COVID, thousands of them were willing to forego vaccination and die in order to “own the libs.”

Before delving into some of the reasons for polarization, it’s important to distinguish between political polarization and other, far less stark differences between Americans. As one scholar recently noted, those political differences are between the Republicans who’ve gone full MAGA and most other Americans…Today’s Right is entirely focused on the interests and fears of white Christians, while the Democratic coalition is much more diverse.

Ezra Klein has observed that “Sorting has made Democrats more diverse and Republicans more homogeneous.”

Research tells us that MAGA Republicans are disproportionately White Christian Nationalists who believe that only White Christians can be “real Americans.” That’s not a belief consistent with moderation or negotiation—or the Constitution.

Some on the far Left of the Democratic Party are also rabid, but today’s Democrats and Independents are ideologically diverse—they range from ex-Republicans like me to the Bernie Sanders/AOC branch of the party (which is still not nearly as “Left” as the Left in Europe). It’s a very troubling situation, because we really need two adult, rational political parties engaged in good-faith policy debate, and instead, as the antics in the current Congress demonstrate, we’re now at a point where actual governance seems impossible.

Reasonable people in both parties look at  the MAGA crazies in Congress and wonder how these people get elected. It’s a significant structural problem: Gerrymandering has moved the “real” election to the primaries in all but a very few Congressional districts—in safe districts, Republican incumbents move Right and Democratic ones move Left to protect against primary challenges, exacerbating the distance between Left and Right. It isn’t only gerrymandering; as the book “The Big Sort” demonstrated, Americans have been clustering–choosing to live in places where they’ll have like-minded neighbors—making cities Bluer and rural areas Redder, and diminishing the likelihood of regular intermingling with people who disagree with them.

Polarization is also promoted by propaganda outlets like Fox News, and by the collapse of local newspapers that reported on less ideological community issues.

We also can’t ignore the fact that a lot of people have lost touch with reality. Back in 2016, a Public Policy Polling survey found 12 million people in the US who believed that interstellar lizards in “people suits” rule our country. Around 66 million Americans believe  aliens landed in Roswell, New Mexico, and around 22 million believe that the government faked the moon landing. Then there are the various QAnon conspiracy theories, the people who believe Bill Gates put chips in Covid vaccines…it goes on and on.

Research tells us that feelings of powerlessness and uncertainty trigger beliefs in conspiracies. People who feel powerless use those theories to regain a sense of control– to make sense of what otherwise seems senseless in the world they inhabit. Right now, thanks to the enormous gap between the rich and the rest of us, the increasing effects of climate change, and the speed of social and technological change, a lot of people are disoriented and fearful. They’re looking for explanations—and unfortunately, a lot of them are also looking for someone–some “other”or group of “others”– to blame.

We need to understand that these divisions aren’t about policy. They’ve become part of personal identity—for a certain subset of people, it’s all about who you are and who you and your group hate. And for too many of us other Americans, who aren’t all that polarized, politics has become just another kind of team sport—my guys versus your guys. Team loyalty.

I concluded by telling them “I hope your generation figures out how to bridge the gap my generation is leaving you, because I don’t have a clue.”


  1. As the left calls the MAGA conservatives a cult the right takes notice how the nation not only has moved to the left but the march to the left continues through the lies of CRT, the anti- family BLM, the four years of lies the media about Russian Collusion, and 2013- 2016 coup in Ukraine followed by US corrupt intervention and politics inserted by the Bidens that goes unprosecuted.
    Most of ghe political games that polarize us are through the donor class that dont care if we are united but flood the press with lies and propaganda to move the country to get what they want. They include Wall Street, the financial institutions and the military complex.
    Financially the US cant continue to fight wars, pay its social welfare thats been paid into and spent, run itself, and grow every year its budget.
    Those who stand up and take notice are getting whacked like in a game of Whackamau, whether they are a Matt Gaez, MJT, AOC.
    There is always push back no matter which direction we move, that’s expected. Both sides need to look back to its roots to find out the reason we have had one constitution of laws while most other countries have had several.

  2. It has been devastating to the country to watch the implosion of the Republican Party. How DO these folks get elected? Who votes for some of them. As a life-long Democrat, I certainly remember the times when I voted for a Republican if I thought they were the better candidate. Now? Not so much. It is not possible because of the lock-step Republicans must march in or be ousted.

    I have often found fault with the Democrat party. They are quick to oust members…which they should, but they are quick. They are diverse to the point of seeming weak at times because they aren’t in ‘lock-step’. But they aren’t rabid. Well, maybe a couple of them. Looking at the Republican Party, it is foolish to think if they ever gain control of all branches again they could not govern any more than they currently govern…and laws we have cherished would be thrown to the side for a small minority of people. Like we are experiencing now, in red states across the country.

  3. You’ve got to be taught to hate and fear.
    You’ve got to be taught from year to year.
    It’s got to be drummed in your dear little ear–
    You’ve got to be carefully taught.

    You’ve got to be taught to be afraid
    Of people whose eyes are oddly made
    And people whose skin is a different shade–
    You’ve got to be carefully taught.

    You’ve got to be taught before it’s too late,
    Before you are six or seven or eight
    To hate all the people your relatives hate–
    You’ve got to be carefully taught
    You’ve got to be carefully taught.

    — Richard Rogers
    “South Pacific” 1949

  4. Part of the problem is that diversity is accompanied by diffusion. Ask a Democrat what the most important issue is and you will get ten answers. There are groups supporting the environment, LGBTQ, women’s issues, racial equality, poverty — you name it, all pulling in different directions, or not caring about each others’ issues. It lacks that “single purpose” of a crusade to “save America from the leftists, meaning godless commies”.

    The Republicans, over decades, have (with the help of coordinated groups of the wealthy) married the interests of the uber rich (low taxes, no regulations, but government subsidies for themselves) with the interests of the most reactionary white evangelicals (ban books, funding private schools, banning abortion, discriminating against LGBTQ, etc.) into a single movement. If you are against discrimination, you are a “leftist, meaning godless commie”; if you are for regulating business, you are a “leftist, meaning godless commie”. It is us, or them, the “leftist, meaning godless commies”.

    Of course, the deregulated monopolistic media (Facebook, Twitter, Fox) have helped spread the us vs. them message, partly for profit and partly to boost the interests of the uber rich. [Note – MSNBC is the “left” version – much smaller and with an aversion to making up “facts” to suit the message. They may select the “items” they discuss, but they don’t invent stories to please their sponsors.]

    On last point – in the primaries, the Democrats swing left and the Republicans swing right, but (yes, this is a negation), on a scale of 1-10 with 1 being centrist and 10 being “way out there”, the Democrats move to a 7; the Republicans to a 23.

  5. From my usual biological lens I understand the strength that results from diversity and the inherent weakness of over-specialization. I’m pretty sure the current craziness of belief in wacko conspiracy theories and urge to resort to violence are part of the death throes of the current Republican party. Socially and culturally, too, diversity is healthy and strengthens the country and the current Democratic party.
    I am in no way blind to the dangers posed by irrationally, but firmly believe that rational people will eventually prevail because irrationally is a weakness. Rant and rave and even murder as much as they may, the irrational can not escape the reality they try to deny.

  6. YES – From Len: “Part of the problem is that diversity is accompanied by diffusion. Ask a Democrat what the most important issue is and you will get ten answers.” United we stand….

  7. Yes, Sharon, from that lens, and from the lens of indigenous people, (Read “Braiding Sweetgrass”), diversity and the interweaving of all the species makes the only real sense.
    Being a “Red Diaper Baby,” Len, I’m proud to be seen as one of those “godless commies,” by the cultists. But, I expect, they would have no real idea of what a genuine old-school, idealistic, commie would look like.
    What we see out there, in the crazies, is an extreme form of tribalism, right out of “The Butter Battle Book,” by Dr. Seuss, complete with infantile thinking and blinkers proudly worn.

  8. Hunter Heath, for the sake accuracy I have to tell you that Oscar Hammerstein wrote the lyrics, while Richard Rogers wrote the music. I know I’m picking nits, but I just like to give credit where it’s due.

    John S, Please tell me, is Joe Biden a criminal mastermind or a doddering old fool? The two seem incompatible to me. I note that the vaunted Impeachment Inquiry called three witnesses, who all said there was no evidence to connect the President to anything that would be an Impeachable offense. Also, you obviously didn’t read the Mueller Report. They didn’t speak to collusion because collusion is ” not a form of art under the law.” They found enough evidence of wrongdoing to recommend charges in eleven instances and they tried and convicted four people and indicted several more, limiting the ability of about a dozen Russians’ to visit our beautiful, little country. Additionally, the shift to the left that you seem to worry about is more of a minor correction after 43 years of moving steadily to the right. On a policy level, the population as a whole is much more progressive than the political world in which we live.

  9. What is “normal” now? How do we remain in the present and plan for the future while remembering the past as “normal”?
    So much is changing so quickly in our individual and collective lives, much more quickly than has ever happened to the world in ages past, that it is hard to define what is “normal”.
    The yearning for order and “normal” may be what is polarizing our collective, worldwide lives. We have no time to adjust and/or adapt to new conditions or ideas or technologies before the next thing is upon us. So we seek refuge in order, no matter the consequences of that surrender to authority. It is easier and more comforting to hear that there is surety and known structure than it is to face brand new life experiences never before confronted in our lifetimes without clear rules of engagement to guide us.
    History is full of lessons on what happens when we surrender to supposedly benign authority only to discover to our peril that those with authority are as flawed and fearful as we are, ready to use lethal force to hold onto power over us.
    It does explain the re-emergence of tribalism all over the world. Hugging the known, “normal”, unchanging, out of fear of the unknown, new “normal” can look very appealing, especially to the most vulnerable and poorest.

  10. Sheila writes, “They’ve become part of personal identity—for a certain subset of people, it’s all about who you are and who you and your group hate.”

    That is an understatement!

    I’ve lost friends to this grouping of Hoosiers as their bland Republican ideas went extreme to “fit in with other extremists.” The more they are held accountable, the further their identity foments.

    I asked Bard how to fix this polarization issue and guess what? It had a similar recommendation from the past several days:

    “Promoting media literacy and critical thinking skills. People need to be able to understand how the media works and how to evaluate the information they consume critically. This will help them to avoid being misled by biased or inaccurate information.”

    Imagine if all the major media channels condemned the crazies as crazies. Also, imagine the major media channels explaining critical thinking skills.

    Good luck changing anything as long as they have the right to be ignorant and lack discernment.

  11. Peggy – wish it were true. Most current data suggests that the world is leaning a bit more to the right now….the Netherlands, Scandinavia….

    Yes, young people are more accepting of diversity, but that’s about it for moving left….

  12. “The most effective way to silence our guilty conscience is to convince ourselves and others that those we have sinned against are indeed depraved creatures, deserving every punishment, even extermination.

    We cannot pity those we have wronged, nor can we be indifferent toward them. We must hate and persecute them or else leave the door open to self-contempt. ”

    –Eric Hoffer, “The True Believer”

  13. I find that in trying to talk to republicans as a single white female with a disability that loves cats that I’m written off. It seems they want to personally attack me as a liberal communist spinster woman who doesn’t know what she’s talking about. My own father treats me this way which saddens me.

    Honestly, I think it’s time that our society considers a matriarchal approach. With a “Mama Bear” at the wheel. Why? Because our maternal instinct helps us to solve arguments between squabbling immature children throwing temper tantrums (Congress). Our maternal instinct teaches children to share resources and get along. Should it come to War a Mama Bear will protect those that need protection. We have never had a woman President and it’s about time that women be given a chance at the wheel. I would love to see Michelle Obama run for the office because not only is she well educated and familiar with what goes on in the White House, she has a former U.S. President to talk to about any political issue if need be.

    Call me crazy, but I don’t think she could make things any worse than they already are.

  14. It amazes me how the political polarization blinds people to practical reality. The Republican speaker of the house election is the perfect example of how far the Republicans have backed into a corner.

    The Republicans see they have a majority in Congress but they CAN’T SEE that they can’t rally that majority behind one person.

    I know this goes against every “own the libs” idea out there, but if one moderate old-school Republican could or would step forward, that would promise to create a bi-partisan coalition of moderates, he would only need half the Democrats and half the Republicans to gain to gavel. He could leave the fringes of the party behind and restore the rules to prevent another ouster.

    BUT, the Republicans have given up on the fact that compromise is part of sane government and if you don’t absolutely “win” then it’s the end of the world and everything is a failure.

  15. JD’s effort today is a good one. He tells us in so many words what I have long since concluded in trying to explain the substance of today’s reality, to wit: that the nature of change must itself be changing. Thus “seeking refuge in order” as one’s means to escape what one perceives to be a negative environment can amount to a surrender of one’s inherent right to measure change on his or her own rather than that of the order, an order arrived at by a predecessors’ measure of change in a different environment, which calls for a change in change as a measurement of today’s reality.

    We do not live in an era of Teddy Roosevelt’s Big Stick or the Dred Scott decision; we live in a world of Hamas and electronic wizardry, and old orders’ measures of change are thus rendered obselete, hence my thesis that change itself must be subject to change as a measure of today’s reality.

    I here take note of Todd’s rightful emphasis on critical thinking, an essential ingredient in one’s choice of change as a measurement of today’s reality.

  16. Nita, “rabid” democrats (including members of Congress) have been claiming (in one form or another) that Israel is to blame for the Hamas attack. We all know that tribalism and hatred goes both ways and both Jews and Muslims in the Middle East have done many things to make their mutual plight worse, but to blame Israel for what has been, in fact, and completely inexcusable act of barbarity by Palestinians, is bordering on insanity: “rabid.”

    Regarding Sheila’s article, there are many reasons for the bizarre belief systems we see in today’s republicans, including the ridiculous conspiracy theories, but the underlying cause, as always, is ignorance. Populism comes from ignorance. The Palestinians in Gaza elected Hamas. The Israelis elected Netanyahu. We elected Trump. Ignorance, ignorance, ignorance. We need to replace that in the U.S. with education: critical thinking, civics, and the humanities, and we need to inspire and guide others worldwide to do the same.

  17. Nothing is simple…Hamas was “elected” in 2006, undoubtedly massively controlling the results; no election since.

    When people are desperate, they are afraid. The average yearly income in Gaza is $1,440; in Israel it is $52,170.

  18. We all live in the world of our minds. That world to most of us here is the same as the world as where our founders also came from when they wrote the first liberal democratic constitution in world .

  19. Peggy Hannon, thanks for the correction. I knew that, but in my early morning haze accepted the wrong info from the website where I got the lyrics!
    I fully agree w/ the thread about the seeming diffuseness (better term in this context than diffusion) of the Democratic Party being a hindrance. I think it was Will Rogers who said “I don’t belong to a political party— I’m a Democrat!” I don’t have an answer for how to address the sprawling nature of Democratic policy leanings vs focused crazies except to speak out for them, fund strong candidates at all electoral levels (even dogcatcher), and VOTE.

  20. Perhaps of interest, regarding the 2006 election when Hamas took control (none held since), per Wicki:

    “polling following the election indicated that two-thirds of Palestinians believed Hamas should change its policy of rejecting Israel’s right to exist. Most also supported a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Post-election polls indicated that Hamas’ victory was due largely to Palestinians’ desire to end corruption in government rather than support for the organization’s political platform.”

  21. Nick Kristof today in The Times
    “We don’t want to replicate in Gaza the approach reportedly expressed by an American Army major in Vietnam in 1968: “It became necessary to destroy the town to save it.”

    The counsel we Americans should offer Israel is threefold and admittedly difficult to follow. First, Israel has right on its side when it goes after its assailants. Second, urban combat has a poor record in achieving its goals — and a considerable history of horrendous casualties. Third, if your moral compass is attuned to the suffering of only one side, your compass is broken, and so is your humanity.”

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