Polarization - an "us vs. them" mentality and being unwilling to listen to and understand others or even compromise to meet common goals -- has made our government more and more dysfunctional, and divided our citizens. It can destroy our democracy, as it did in Chile.
Polarization is destroying democracy,
and we can DO something about it!
by Dona Sauerburger
By the early 1970's Chile, which had a thriving democracy, had become so polarized and extremist that the government was no longer able to function. In 1973 it was overthrown and Augusto Pinochet became president. A mild-mannered man strongly devoted to the Catholic church and his family, Pinochet surprised everyone when his government tortured and executed thousands of citizens. The Chileans never saw it coming (Jared Diamond, 2019).
The conditions in our country now are just as polarized and conducive to extremist violence and even genocide as they were in Chile then. And compromise, an essential feature of democracy (Diamond, 2019), is happening less and less in our government. Our democracy and our nation's moral standing are in grave danger.
We may think Americans would never tolerate violence to promote ideology and extremism.
But hundreds of American people cheered when our President praised a legislator for body-slamming a British reporter and then joked that the assault helped the legislator win his election. Polling data of votes made after the incident indicates that the assault didn't hurt.
Last year an angry tenant ran over my son to make him "learn some respect," and he may never fully recover. A few months later, when an angry demonstrator in Charlotte intentionally ran his vehicle into a crowd and killed a protester, our President correctly pointed out that there were good people on both sides (recognizing the good in people is an important step towards unity and depolarization!), but he was slow to condemn the killing. Three days later, he retweeted an image of a Trump train running into and killing a CNN reporter.
Societies that condone or participate in mass murders like the one in Chile usually do so because they are convinced that certain groups of people are "others" who are less than human or who pose a danger to them. It is surprising how easily people can be swayed by efforts to dehumanize others, and adopt these beliefs. This includes Americans, where Africans were dehumanized to justify enslaving them, and Germans, where Jews were called cockroaches and pests who needed to be exterminated to justify rounding them up and sending them off to be killed. In both cases, with some notable exceptions, people went along with it.
This "othering" of people - making them deserve our contempt and repression or even extermination in the minds of some people - is now happening here. Americans who considered people who are Jewish, or homosexual, or African-American, or Hispanic as "others" who need to be repressed or exterminated have gone into a synagogue, a gay night club, an historically Black church, and El Paso to terrorize or eliminate them.
And the polarization is happening on a personal level, too.
We all know people who avoid speaking with friends, colleagues and even family members because of the way that they voted, and the percentage of parents who prefer that their children not have an interpolitical marriage (55%) is greater than the percentage of people who don't approve of interracial marriages (13%) (Enochs, 2017).
What can we do about it?
To stop the polarization that is destroying our country and our traditional American culture, we can stop perpetuating it ourselves, and join the growing number of people who are turning away from the division and hate.
On a political level, we can promote nonpartisan election systems, such as opposing gerrymandering and supporting open primaries (which studies indicate increase bipartisanship: Alvarez and Sinclair, 2012, Grose, 2016).
And we can avoid becoming involved in the power games of political parties, and instead insist that legislators work together.
When a delegation from the League of Women Voters of Maryland visited Congressional offices earlier this year and asked legislators to help get some bills passed, they were told that the way to make that happen is to help elect more members of their party into office.
They seemed to prefer for us to get involved in partisan politics and help them get rid of oppositional legislators than for them to agree to work together and compromise to get things done.
On a personal level, we can adopt some of the strategies that promote unity (as well as our own well-being!) by treating others (ALL others!) with love and respect, even (or especially!) when it's difficult, and refuse to let powerful people manipulate our loyalty and passion for their own purposes. Research indicates that this approach actually prolongs our lives, and makes us healthier and happier! (Brooks, 2019)
To promote unity on a personal level, we have 3 tasks.
These strategies may seem overwhelming to consider, but they can be done, especially when we are motivated to do what we can to make this world a better place. As more and more of us adopt the strategies, we will turn back the toxic polarization before it destroys democracy and the country we love, AND we will be healthier and happier ourselves.
- One is to get to know and talk with people with whom we disagree - not with the goal of convincing them to agree with our beliefs, but to understand them, without judgment. This means avoiding ascribing motives to other people without taking the time to understand them. Better Angels, a citizens' alliance that was created a few years ago to depolarize America, offers guidance and training for doing this in settings that are conducive to understanding each other.
- Another task is to avoid judging or characterizing other people or groups of people. What people are DOING. or the POLICIES they are promoting, may be deplorable or stupid or thoughtless or harmful, but people themselves are way too complex to be labeled and put into a category. The only people who label others or ascribe motives to them are people who haven't bothered to get to know them. So try to catch yourself labeling or judging others, and vow to get to know them better.
This means also being on the alert to notice every instance of others judging or holding contempt for people, and call them on it or tune them out. When listening to political candidates and media personalities, I am interested only in those who refrain from labeling and categorizing others. As Brooks says, whenever someone gets us to hate, they are profiting -- we need to stop being used by the "outrage industrial complex, and politics and media" that is feeding the polarization and the "us vs. them" mentality and extremism which is threatening our way of life.
The last task is the hardest, but I've found it to be the most gratifying, helping me reduce my stress and deal with a world that can sometimes seem overwhelming.
It is to consciously love those whom we think are doing bad things, sincerely wishing them well while we fight and oppose or deal with what they are doing. Let's heed the family of one of the victims of the shooting in El Paso who urged us not to turn their tragedy into a reason to hate anyone.
In my own case, it was surprisingly easy for me to love the man who changed our lives forever when he ran over my son, and wish him peace and happiness as he serves out his prison term. I find it much harder to love the politicians whose policies seem to me to be incredibly harmful, racist, polarizing or greedy, and even harder to wish them well. But once I accomplished that (managing to love them and wish them well), I was surprised at how much it reduced my stress, made me feel more at peace while I did everything in my power to oppose their policies or decisions.
One strategy that helps me love these "enemies" is explained by Jean-Robert Bayard (2018).
Think about what the "enemy" is doing that is so detestable, and then find an example where we ourselves have done something similar.
For example, when I see our political leaders doing something that seems discriminatory or repressive, I work to remember times that I have dismissed or unreasonably ascribed negative characteristics to a group of people.
It makes me cringe with embarrassment but it helps me understand.
And whenever someone says something hurtful or ignorant, I can remember doing the same.
My favorite part of this exercise is to then forgive myself for these negative things and realize that I am still a good person, and then do the same with the "enemy." As Bayard explains, once we recognize these failings in ourselves and manage to understand it, we can understand and deal with it in others.
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- Alvarez, Michael, and Sinclair, Betsy (2012). Electoral Institutions and Legislative Behavior: The Effects of Primary Processes. Political Research Quarterly, University of Utah and Western Political Science Association
- Bayard, Jean-Robert (2018). How to Think if You Want to Change the World: Spiritual Practices for Social Activism. Magissa Foundation, Gambrills, MD
- Brooks, Arthur C. (2019). Love Your Enemies: How Decent People Can Save America from the Culture of Contempt. American Enterprise Institute, Broadside Books, New York
- Diamond, Jared (2019). Upheaval: Turning Points for Nations in Crisis. Little, Brown and Company, New York
- Enochs, Kevin (2017). In US, 'Interpolitical' Marriage Increasingly Frowned Upon, Voice of America
- Grose, Christian R. (2016). Evaluating California's Top Two Primary: Candidates are more bipartisan and more responsive to independent voters in Top-Two Primaries than in closed primaries. Schwarzenegger Institute Report, University of Southern California