Do a search for “America polarized” and you’ll see that serious observers are very concerned:
The Pew Charitable Trusts: “America Is Exceptional in Its Political Divide”
Carnegie Endowment for International Peace: “What Happens When Democracies Become Perniciously Polarized?”
The New Yorker: “How Politics Got So Polarized”
The New York Times: “America Has Split, and It’s Now In Very Dangerous Territory”
The Atlantic: “The Doom Spiral of Pernicious Polarization”
And so on. But polarization is a symptom, not the disease.
The following is from “Political Polarization Isn’t the Real Problem in America”, an interview with two University of North Carolina political scientists at Salon:
There was a time, not all that long ago, when the idea that American political life was dangerously polarized was controversial, and often vehemently denied…. Today things look quite different…. Polarization research has exploded, exploring many different dimensions — social, ideological, affective — all resting on the premise that polarization is a big problem, if not the central problem, in American politics today. But this research too often tacitly yearns for a lost golden age of greater consensus, an age that was never golden for those effectively excluded….
Daniel Kreiss and Shannon McGregor, both at the University of North Carolina, … argue that the focus on polarization as such, while ignoring the actual content of politics that produces polarization, is fundamentally mistaken….
I was reading the Axios newsletter this morning and they used the language of polarization to talk about how college students are making choices on the basis of state laws around reproductive rights. Basically they bemoaned the polarization that means people aren’t going to go to school in red states if they value abortion access. But the problem there is not polarization, it’s that 18- to 24-year-olds, very logically, are like, “We want to be make sure that we have reproductive freedoms and can make autonomous choices for our own bodies when we go to school.” Polarization is beside the point….
It’s not to say that polarization is not something to be concerned about. There are all sorts of ways that citizens have skewed understandings of the other side, when it comes to the beliefs that citizens of different parties hold, and those things are all potentially concerning. But when you have an assault on our nation’s capital, as we did on Jan. 6, that was designed to prevent the peaceful transfer of power after a safe and a secure election, the problem is not polarization, it’s anti-democratic extremism. It’s unfair and illegitimate power grabs by a set of dominant groups in a white-dominant political party. It’s not the fact that we’re so divided. I just think a lot of scholars have been drawing the wrong conclusions and focusing on the wrong questions when it comes to what we should be concerned about….
One way to think about [this] is to ask: “Why is the contemporary right obsessed with trans issues right now?” I think this is a clear example of constructing identitarian appeals that work with white men in particular. That also came right on the heels of all the “critical race theory” bills that swept across the country, all with similar language about protecting, in essence, whites from feeling guilty from learning about racial history, from being accountable for racial histories….
If you’re considering the democratic consequences of polarization, you also have to consider what the poles you’re comparing really are. Polarization only says what’s of concern is that distance between two groups, whereas we’re arguing that one group is anti-democratic extremists and the other group is a multiracial democratic movement. The concern is not that they’re so far apart….
The polarization frame is the easy one. It’s politically neutral. It’s easy to be like, “Oh, we’re all so polarized!” Consider that Axios newsletter I mentioned: A more careful analysis is to say, “Maybe 18 to 24-year-olds are concerned about the fact that they’re going to have access to reproductive care while they’re in college.” Or to cite another issue, the problem isn’t that we’re polarized around guns, the problem is we have mass shootings once a week in this country. I think it requires having a much clearer diagnosis of what’s at issue.
But that also means taking a stance. And I think a lot of journalists and a lot of social scientists, a lot of people in public life feel very uncomfortable with that. We can’t call out guns, but we can call out polarization. But from my point of view, the problem is guns. The problem is anti-trans laws. The problem is white supremacy. Those are the issues that I think we should focus on, and be clear-eyed about.
Polarization becomes a way to talk about politics without talking about politics at all, without actually getting at the underlying issues. We all just need to be much sharper in our analysis and much clearer in our commitments when we talk about these issues, without the lazy way out of relying on polarization speak.
The basic problem isn’t polarization. As the Salon article says, the basic problem is that one pole is a lot worse than the other. From Vox:
A 2019 survey of nearly 2,000 experts on political parties from around the world asked respondents to rate political parties on two axes: the extent to which they are committed to basic democratic principles and their commitment to protecting rights for ethnic minorities. The higher the number, the more anti-democratic and intolerant the party is.
The following chart shows the results of the survey for all political parties [among] wealthy democratic states, with the two major American parties highlighted in red. The Republican Party is an extreme outlier compared to mainstream conservative parties in other wealthy democracies….
Its closest peers are, almost uniformly, radical right and anti-democratic parties. This includes Turkey’s AKP (a regime that is one of the world’s leading jailers of journalists), and Poland’s PiS (which has threatened dissenting judges with criminal punishment). Experts rate the GOP as substantially more hostile to minority rights than Hungary’s Fidesz, an authoritarian party that has made demonization of Muslim immigrants into a pillar of its official ideology.
In short, there is a consensus among comparative politics scholars that the Republican Party is one of the most anti-democratic political parties in the developed world. It is one of a handful of once-centrist parties that has, in recent years, taken a turn toward the extreme….
Over the past decade and a half, Republicans have shown disdain for procedural fairness and a willingness to put the pursuit of power over democratic principles. They have implemented measures that make it harder for racial minorities to vote, render votes from Democratic-leaning constituencies irrelevant, and relentlessly blocked Democratic efforts to conduct normal functions of government.
And consider that this survey was conducted before the “Stop the Steal” bullshit, the attack on Congress, the Supreme Court’s forced birth decision, Republican extortion on the debt limit, etc. You’re damn right we’re polarized.