3 Reasons We’re Growing More Polarized

As I write this, I’m sitting on a train, traveling to spend Thanksgiving with family. My seatmate is a stranger on his way to Reno. That’s pretty much all I know about him. I don’t have any information about his political leanings, his religion, or the country listed on his birth certificate (although based on his accent, I’m pretty sure it’s not the same as the one listed on mine). We probably don’t have a lot in common. I don’t even know his name. So can we peaceably sit next to each other for the next 500 miles? Cable news talk shows might suggest otherwise, but I have no doubt we can. Our elbows can share the awkward “no man’s land” between his undisputed territory and mine. Maybe we’ll even chit-chat a little. As long as we’re both content for the train to go in the same direction, we’re good.

Leading up to, during, and in the wake of the recent presidential election, we all heard a lot about polarization. Our country is polarized, they say. We are deeply divided. And our voting habits show it. Just look at all those red states and blue states. No middle ground, no room for compromise. Just a whole lot of red and blue. And red and blue are about as far apart as you can get.

We’re Purple!

Well, I’m not sure we’re as polarized as we look at first glance. Sure, we have passionate partisans, but most people don’t fall into that category. While many of us have deeply held beliefs, most of those beliefs aren’t, in essence, political.

Most of the people I interact with are far more nuanced in their viewpoints. They don’t identify with pundits and politicians. They know how to coexist with people who think differently, and they’re willing to revise their opinions in the face of another perspective–especially in relationship with someone whose personal experience gives them a reason to see things differently. They’re willing to acknowledge that life and its questions are not simple and rarely have easy answers. And they’re frustrated that campaigns focused almost exclusively on differentiating candidates from one another force them to choose between leaders who don’t seem to represent them well.

I recently reviewed this fascinating collection of maps reflecting the results of the electoral college in this election. It’s interesting for all sorts of reasons, but the most compelling to me was the second-to-last map on the page–with all its mixed colors. When viewed in detail, the vast majority of counties are neither red nor blue. Most of the country is a lovely shade of purple.

People who design and report on surveys and statistics need to put us in political categories. Partisan politicians want to divide us into one camp or the other. News reporters wouldn’t have much of a story if they reported on the complexities of life among a purple population. So they paint us as more sharply polarized than we are.

And Yet . . .

While I don’t believe we are hopelessly divided, obviously there is something to this polarization thing. Some of us are growing more extreme in our views and moving farther away from one another. In an increasingly complex age, where most of the world is literally a click away, this seems puzzling. As we enjoy the capability to communicate with all varieties of people and hear from just about anyone, why become more extreme in our viewpoints? In an electronically networked world, we no longer have six degrees–but only 4.74 degrees of separation between any two people in the world. Within the United States, at most we’re only 4.37 degrees apart. As the world gets smaller, why don’t we look a little more like one huge happy family?

I can think of at least three reasons, all embedded in our society.

1. Selective hearing. Our wired society not only connects us–it enables an unprecedented level of customization in the messages we hear. It’s become easy to tune in only to the voices we want to listen to. Such reinforcement of our own perspective deepens our commitment to ideology, skews our view of the world, and enables us to more easily vilify those who disagree with us.

2. Uncommon enemies. For much of our history, we have been united in common cause against a clear and identifiable enemy we could all agree was a threat to us. Our world has changed. These days, the closest thing we have to a common enemy is “dangerous extremism.” But we can’t all agree on what is extreme or dangerous. We even throw those labels at one another. There are plenty of people who don’t like us, but we can’t agree on whether to fight them or try to win them over. So we find ourselves fighting with one another.

3. Waning wealth. For decades, our general prosperity covered a multitude of sins. Our mutual desire to preserve a system that worked pretty well for most of us kept us smiling at one another, like greedy relatives conspiring to keep rich Uncle Tony happy so he wouldn’t write us out of his will. Now the joke’s on us–Uncle Tony was in serious debt, and now we’re in serious economic jeopardy. A major reason to keep the peace in our own self-interest is gone.

Stay in Touch

So what’s a nation to do? What’s an individual person supposed to do? Perhaps the first step is to recognize the true purple nature of our society. We are not as far away from one another as we might assume. Most of our neighbors–near and far–are not out to get us. They want most of the same things in life that we do.

Speaking of neighbors, all of us should intentionally interact with people who live and think differently than we do–not to win them over, but to know them. To hear their stories. Our beliefs must live in the real world. If they don’t, they aren’t true. That doesn’t mean they always live easily in the world–but if we can’t test them against other perspectives, refine them, and hold onto them, we may be believing in things that don’t exist–like a nostalgic view of the past, an idealistic view of the future, or a desperate optimism rooted in fear.

Do we have to give up our deeply held beliefs? Compromise on our true passions? No. And sometimes holding to faith or moral conviction will mean we find ourselves at odds with many of our neighbors. That’s OK; it’s something we all have to live with at times.

But there’s always room to question why we hold the beliefs we do. Are they truly a matter of absolute right and wrong, or are they rooted in our desire to get (or stay) ahead of other people? Preserve traditions that seem sacred to us but no longer have a place in the world? Ultimately, our commitment to unity and the common good must outweigh our dedication to being right, winning, or being in power.

  1. anonymous says:

    Tim Keller was asked what non-believers would say about his church. He said he hoped they say, “I don’t agree with those (church) people, but I’d hate to see the neighborhood without them.'” I thought that was a nice way to think about getting along with others/contributing to community without reliquishing our beliefs. Do you?

© 2012 Amy Simpson.