I have studied and decried political polarization in the United States for many years.
Congress, which should be the key site for synthesizing disparate viewpoints from across the country, is instead largely following trends established by rival media echo-chambers. The polarization is materially impairing our ability to govern ourselves effectively.
These competing media worlds have an incentive to not agree, to maximize conflict in order to maximize viewership. “Rage to engage” is the idea.
Allowing the most house of the most democratic branch of our government to atrophy is not acceptable and could have dire consequences going forward.
What is to be done?
There may be key reforms that could move us in a direction where engagement is promoted and polarization is discouraged. Things like non-partisan primaries carried out using ranked-choice voting and alternate funding models for news outlets.
But the rejuvenation of our liberal democracy must be a cultural as well as a political change.
Fortunately, the very intensity of the polarization is what makes engaging it a powerful path forward.
The polarization is the locus of great cultural and political energy, and will be our greatest asset if only we can get the different sides of the argument to deeply engage each other.
This will happen bottom-up: we can each do this in our own lives, without permission. An ideological rival is a resource like no other, relentlessly pointing out the flaws in arguments, the overlooked, the bad assumptions; who wishes to can learn much this way.
To renew our liberal democracy, we must practice liberalism and democracy in our own lives: if our culture is imbued with it, our government inevitably will be, too.
Talk with, befriend, if possible live amongst, those you disagree with. Love them more than you may dislike their views. Be humble. You can learn from anyone.
This is easier said than done. For those deeply invested in an echo-chamber identity, encountering other views of the world can feel deeply threatening.
That’s why depolarization is a spiritual path. It is a path for self-growth, by challenging your assumptions. By requiring you to defend, or even modify, your beliefs in the light of new challenges and, ideally, new evidence.
Depolarization is not for the complacent. But it is for those who are tired of feeling angry all the time; of seeing their fellow Americans as enemies; of feeling comfortable only with a certain crowd with whom they already agree. If you’re ready to live a bigger life, to open your heart wider than you ever thought it could, then you must encounter, and engage with, that which triggers you.
It’s my belief that over time everyone who does this will come to see how what they once regarded as “other” was already a part of them; how hate for that “other” was hate for themselves; how the “other” has the answers to problems they once saw as insurmountable; and how love for themselves and for others is, in the end, the same thing.