Asking the wrong questions about our culture of toxic polarization
I was recently asked by the Biden administration to answer the following question: “What is your sense of the main drivers of our national disunity?”
My response was that it is misleading and problematic to think of this 50-year trajectory of escalating division we are currently trapped in, in terms of root causes or main drivers. A complex set of drivers are feeding and reinforcing one another in strange ways that makes these types of wicked problems so intractable and mercurial. Understanding this fact and knowing something about how such complex adaptive problems change is paramount in affecting real and lasting change.
However, with that said, I would emphasize five main layers that contribute to this toxic polarization.
Our legacy of white supremacy. The 400-year legacy of white supremacy in the U.S. is both our most egregious original sin and one of the deepest sources of our divisions. As documented by many, the resulting structures of white privilege and oppression, injustice and inequality of Black, Indigenous and people of color (BIPOC) continue to traumatize, poison and haunt us today. Add to this the increasingly rapid pace of change in our demographics toward majority non-white citizens — coupled with repeated waves of severe economic downturns — and you begin to see the depth and power of these dynamics that trigger such fear and anxiety in many whites. These anxieties have been a political gold mine for some politicians who manipulate and weaponize them for political gain. In fact, this fear-mongering strategy has become central to the Republican playbook for decades and was fertile soil for birtherism and the profound obstructionism that President Obama faced in office. Most recently, we saw white supremacy rear its ugly head in the presentation of the Confederate flag, proudly held aloft inside our U.S. Capitol.
Destabilizing shocks. The 1960s and early 1970s were a time of great social, cultural and political upheaval in the U.S. — with political assassinations, the Civil Rights movement, a significant anti-war and anti-establishment movement, Roe v. Wade, the Watergate scandal and profound cultural changes (Summer of Love), all of which rocked families and communities across our land. These major sources of tumult destabilized many foundational structures in the U.S. and triggered a cascading set of changes that culminated in the polarization trends that we have seen in Washington and on Main Street since the 1970s. Such times of significant political shock and instability are well-documented as precursors to the onset of deeply-rooted protracted conflicts.
Politics as war. The 1980s and 1990s ushered in a dramatic turn in the climate of our national politics. The Watergate scandal had severely weakened the Republican Party until President Reagan’s conservative revolution brought its conservative ideology roaring back and Newt Gingrich’s political philosophy and restructuring of the social fabric of Washington tipped U.S. politics into a decades-long period of zero-sum, winner-takes-all war. The result was a precipitous decline in bipartisanship in Washington, a deterioration of political decorum and a spike in obstructionism and enmity between camps. President Trump and Trumpism were merely a logical, albeit extreme, extension of this mindset. Although healthy societies often benefit from dialectic tensions between robust conservative and progressive thinking and policies, ours has split them off into two extremely opposing camps that suffer from autistic hostilities or the inability to communicate and compromise across the divide. When our national leaders model such attitudes and actions from Washington, its effects trickle down to state and local governance, as well as to our homes and workplaces.
Increasing inequality and degradation of our institutions. The empirical relationship between economic inequality and political instability has been well-documented for decades. Today, income inequality in the U.S. is the highest among all the G7 nations, where the wealth gap between America’s richest and poorest families more doubled between 1989 and 2016. Middle-class incomes have grown at a much slower rate than upper-tier incomes over the past five decades, while the upper 20 percent of U.S. households have increased their share of all U.S. income to more than half.
When COVID-19 hit, the middle and lower working classes were hit hardest. The combination of being less likely to be able to remain socially distant due to their types of employment and having higher incidence of underlying medical conditions like diabetes and chronic pulmonary disorders, amplified the risks of the virus and raised mortality rates. This yawning gap in the safety, security and lived experiences between the wealthiest Americans and everyone else has been found to intensify a sense of relative deprivation or a deep feeling of injustice, which under certain conditions can lead to collective violence and even revolution.
The weaponization of truth and outrage. Finally, I would add to this history the more recent transformations and perversions of our media and information systems. The dismantling of the Fairness Doctrine in 1987, the unforeseen consequences of the financial success of 60 Minutes on the subsequent commoditization and “entertainmentization” of news media, the exponential growth of social media platforms that incentivize competitive, contentious social interactions and the intentional misinformation campaigns launched initially by foreign actors — and subsequently by the Trump team and its media proxies — have all contributed to our current state of American psychosis. That is, to two parallel but opposing information ecosystems that have effectively delegitimize facts, truth and reporting and today act as an accelerant of our cultural addiction to outrage. The resulting confusion and delusion instilled in such a large swath of Americans is perhaps our most dangerous threat.
These strengths of these five factors — fueled and reinforced by a multitude of related elements — contribute to the intractability of our current climate of contempt. In the face of such problems, essentialist thinking is part of the problem.
Peter T. Coleman is a professor at Columbia University. He is the author of “The Way Out: How to overcome toxic polarization.”
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