The Dynamics and Dangers of Polarization By Luke Perry
Current levels of political polarization now rival the pre-Civil War era. The largest ideological groups in society today are solid conservatives and solid liberals, who are responsible for most political activism. Democracy needs instigators, organizers, and problem solvers, but the ratio between the three is out of balance, endangering the overall well being of our political system.
Instigators challenge conventional norms, prompting reflection and change. Donald Trump has been the prime instigator in U.S. politics since he declared his candidacy for president. Trump’s political style relies on personal charisma and attacks on people and institutions.
He has inspired a substantial minority of conservative Americans around the broad hope of restoring lost greatness. Even Republicans who don’t care for his antics believe Trump provides a strong voice for a conservative vision that is much needed and long overdue.
Organizers seek to actively mobilize people toward shared values and community activism. Progressive liberals, particularly women, have become prime organizers during the Trump presidency. The Women’s March in Washington was a pivotal first step, followed by various forms of grassroots organizing, central to what is now called “the resistance.”
The resistance dislikes Trump as a person as well as his politics. They are critical of his dismantling of the Obama legacy and view him as self-centered, unethical, and dangerous. This stems from his unorthodox public persona, including bragging about sexual assault, hyperbolic credit claiming, falsehoods and conspiracy theories.
Agitators and Organizers of all political persuasions are important and necessary in forging progress and advancing representation. At the same time, what is notably lacking today are problem solvers.
Problem solvers think openly and speak carefully in diagnosing societal challenges and proposing solutions. They rely on both political empathy and political calculation. They know you can’t connect with political opponents without understanding their point of view and political change best results from synergy, not a politics of destruction.
This is difficult, particularly now. Neither the president, nor Congressional leaders from either party, have exhibited these characteristics. It’s worth remembering they take their cues from citizens. It’s easy to delegitimize and demonize conflicting perspectives and values. This ease and lack of restraint help explain why we get angry and call people names, rather than engaging in meaningful dialogue that seeks to bridge differences.
The absence of problem solvers has turned electoral competition into all out political warfare with little grace, respect, or deference. Without compromise, total victory is the only path to power, a necessity for realizing partisan goals. This helps explain recent Republican recalculations toward supporting Roy Moore.
This is also why windows of unified government, where the presidency and Congress are controlled by the same party, produce the significant pieces of legislation passed this century, including The Affordable Care Act and perhaps The Tax Cuts and Jobs Act.
The larger tragedy is the vanishing of political civility and loss of faith in public service. Neither are possible without willing participants in the middle. Donald Trump hasn’t helped with this, but he also didn’t create this situation, nor is completely responsible for it.
Millions of Americans have adopted the mindset that losing partisan control of government is an existential crisis. Until this changes, don’t expect our government to.
Luke Perry (@PolSciLukePerry) is Chair and Professor of Government at Utica College.