Polarization leads to divisiveness

Camille Galles

“I am a Democrat.”

Based on that statement alone, you probably want to either hug me or hit me. In a world of polarized politics, it seems like political beliefs define a person’s entire identity. But sorting others into polarized groups paralyzes society.

Polarization between America’s two political parties is more pronounced than ever. More significantly, party polarization (between Republicans and Democrats) has become synonymous with ideological polarization (between conservatives and liberals). Today, 70 percent of politically engaged people are highly ideological, compared to 58 percent of Republicans and 35 percent of Democrats in 1994. There used to be such a thing as a “liberal Republican.” Today, the concept is laughable.

And when ideology and politics merge, identities form. People with similar political identities are more likely to live in areas with others who share their opinions and develop world views shaped only by people who agree with them. Factual information that threatens these political identities is rejected and dismissed.

As each party forms stronger and more polarized identities, they hate the other party more. Meeting people who affiliate themselves with an opposing party can cause instant recoil. I’ve experienced it, and I bet you have, too. We presume to know a person’s entire value system based who they vote for, but that gets us nowhere. Real life isn’t divided into two categories of “left” and “right.” 

Polarization sneaks into our everyday life to prevent us from even attempting to understand those with different political identities. This widespread lack of empathy can harm society just as much as a gridlocked Congress. Polarization doesn’t just paralyze the politicians in Washington — it affects everyone, everywhere.