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.”