Over the past decade, it has been apparent to anyone remotely observing American society that political polarization has become more rampant by the year. Although polarization can be healthy for a democracy, too much of it divides people to a point where compromise is near impossible and hatred becomes a key characteristic of a population. While America has not reached the fullest levels of polarization, it is certainly not on a positive trajectory. It is important to understand where we stand as a nation on this matter and ways anyone can individually contribute to stopping this wave.
According to the PRRI, 90% of Americans believe that the country is divided over politics and 60% are pessimistic about society being able to overcome issues of polarization. Overtime, Americans have increasingly grown to resent their opposing political party, which can be seen at a surface level when comparing recent election results to elections held 20 years ago. In 1984, Ronald Regan won 97% of the electoral votes, implying that almost all states in the country leaned in one direction. Since 1984, that number has periodically decreased, most noticeably seen in the 2016 and 2020 election where Biden and Trump won only 56% of the country’s electoral votes, respectively.
Now, one could argue that America is not the only country struggling with polarization, and other democracies across the world are facing the same issues. However, political polarization within Americans is growing faster than any other comparable democracy, according to Brown professor Jesse Shapiro and his colleagues. In fact, according to their study, polarization has decreased in the past 40 years within countries such as the UK, Australia, Norway and Sweden.
Although there are a multitude of reasons as to why American polarization is increasing at such a fast rate, there are forces that share more of the blame than others. One factor that is relatively unique to the U.S. is the rise of 24 hour partisan cable news. According to Shapiro’s study, countries that have seen a decrease in polarization have allocated more in public broadcasting than the United States. Although it is easy to blame the internet as another major cause of political polarization across the world, the countries that have seen a decrease in polarization during the rise of the internet disprove this point. According to PNAS, greater internet use is not correlated with faster growth of polarization within different groups of Americans. This statistic isn’t meant to discredit the adverse effects that social media and the internet can have through promoting echo-chambers, but only intended to highlight the fact that polarization is more deeply rooted within our society.
Now that we have established the problem of polarization within America and how we are doing worse off with this issue compared to the rest of the world, it is important to consider different things anyone can do to help solve this issue. While depolarization will come over time, Americans need to act with urgency to prevent this issue and to make sure future generations do not live in such a divided society. The best thing we can do at this point in time is to expose ourselves to media and content that we do not agree with and to empathize with opposing groups before reaching conclusions. Another method is to actively seek people within our community that we disagree with and have a civil conversation with them in order to better understand their perspective and to see if there are any commonalities. Most importantly, we must put in the effort to truly listen and understand before responding in a defensive manner, and always enter these conversations with an open mindset.
If we all begin implementing these practices within our daily lives, our society will surely progress and transform into a space that is more inclusive and united as a whole.