Opinion Advocates for ideas and draws conclusions based on the author/producer’s interpretation of facts and data.
We have a serious political polarization problem in the U.S. right now. It’s not so much the damage done during the Trump administration (although he certainly exacerbated those problems) as it is that our divisions have hardened into political partisanship, which now influences just about every aspect of life in America.
Divisions in society are natural and inevitable, especially one as large and diverse as the United States. The difference now is that all the identities people represent can be largely sorted by party affiliation, which itself is now a shorthand label that implies a specific set of characteristics and beliefs.
Whether we’re talking about differences between classes, races, or religions, these differences now align along partisan lines, too. Increasingly, demography is political destiny.
The divisions have become so extreme that what should have been unifying events—a global pandemic, and now the outbreak of war in Europe—have instead contributed to partisan sorting. Republican governors and other officials have worked to undermine public health measures to contain the spread of COVID-19, and we now have influential GOP figures, including former President Trump, actually taking the side of Vladimir Putin after his unprovoked invasion of Ukraine.
That hasn’t always been the case. Nobody in media or politics used the terms “red state” and “blue state” before the 2000 presidential election. That’s a recent development, an artifact of our winner-take-all Electoral College, that serves to explain and reinforce the (overly simplistic) belief that, especially in presidential elections, a state’s voters can be assumed to go one way or the other before a single poll has been taken or vote has been cast. (Political color schemes were never standardized in the media before that election, despite historical association of the color red with communist and socialist movements. Perhaps because the recount of the 2000 election kept the electoral maps on our TV screens for such an extended period of time, the networks cohered around red versus blue as a form of shorthand, and the trend stuck.)
Before 2000, we had liberal-moderate Republicans from northern states and conservative-moderate Democrats from the South, the industrial Midwest was a bastion of working-class unionism, and the West was an unpredictable political frontier, as likely to spawn a Ronald Reagan as a Jerry “Governor Moonbeam” Brown.
Mark Alan Smith, associate chair of the Department of Political Science at the University of Washington, says the parties are a lot more monolithic now.
“A lot of conflict that used to be within parties, is now between parties,” Smith says.
The results of that partisan sorting are distressing. A lot of those ideological fault lines are drawn according to the politics of grievance—racial, economic, religious, and cultural—that Trump was able to exploit so thoroughly. As columnist Thomas Edsall wrote in The New York Times on Jan. 26, the key to reducing the amount of polarization in society is a redistribution of large amounts of resources and wealth. But Edsall also cited two studies that showed that “aggressive redistribution policies designed to lessen inequality must be initiated before polarization becomes further entrenched.”
“In other words, a deeply polarized electorate is highly unlikely to support redistribution that would benefit their adversaries as well as themselves,” Edsall wrote.
YES! Magazine’s founding editor, Sarah van Gelder, saw much of this dynamic playing out in 2014, when she took a cross-country road trip to research her book The Revolution Where You Live. As she told former Executive Editor Zenobia Jeffries Warfield recently, many communities in the Midwest and Appalachia had been abandoned by business and government, and she saw a portrait of America that the mainstream media would “discover” a few years later as they attempted to explain the rise of an autocrat: “And within the places left out, there was a sense of hopelessness. This system we’re seeing on television and we’re being told is working, it isn’t working for us. We’re left out. And so there’s a deep alienation. A sense that there is just no future.”
In-group insularity is nothing new—the whole concept of “tribalism” dates to prehistory, when extended families of early humans banded together to share resources and fight off the other groups that were encroaching on their mammoth-hunting grounds.
But a few things happened along the way as humanity’s discourse shifted from caves to cafés.
One is the recent fragmentation of the media landscape, especially since the arrival of the internet. Despite its early promise of “connecting people” around the world, the internet has become a tool of giant corporations like Facebook, whose algorithms sort people into like-minded groups, insulating them from others and reinforcing our existing beliefs. “Engagement,” that magic metric businesses use to find their audiences, easily lends itself to provocation, since nothing engages the mind—and inner keyboard warrior—as much as the heat of righteous anger.
It’s not just the internet, but all media that has fragmented. There used to be just three major broadcast networks in America, and senior figures like Walter Cronkite had the respect of the nation. Those networks, as a result, sought to appeal to the wide political center.
Smith points to the rise of Rush Limbaugh in the late 1980s on talk radio—itself a formerly centrist institution—as an early example of the trend that led to the rise of the professional internet troll.
“There’s a lot of incentives built into social media that push us even further,” Smith says. He points to conservative radio host Dan Bongino as a perfect example of someone who’s maximally utilized social media’s tendency to promote the most inflammatory commentary. “He basically came out of nowhere, and he’s just really good at demonizing the other side.”
The other major change in society has been the loss of what Smith terms “mediating institutions,” places where people from different walks of life would meet face to face. Most importantly, these are places that humanized us, even when we had differences.
This loss was most succinctly described in Robert D. Putnam’s 2000 book, Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community. Churches, unions, bowling leagues, and the like tended to draw a broader swath of the population. Even if churches were highly segregated along racial lines, they were more diverse along class lines, Smith points out.
Most important was the face-to-face contact that took place within these institutions. Not only did that interaction help humanize people that we’ve now come to see as enemies, but it also broadened our knowledge of what those other groups consider important.
There are groups currently working to facilitate this interaction. The nonprofit Braver Angels (formerly Better Angels) has been convening meetups both online and in person, nationally and in states across the country, with the express intent of providing a venue for open and respectful dialogue across the political divide.
That knowledge of other groups might also help elected officials respond more capably to their constituencies. (Although the gerrymandering of electoral districts has also contributed to an environment in which many politicians need only appeal to their base of voters, because they have very few opposition voters to respond to.)
Smith points out that between 2016 and 2020, Trump lost support from educated White voters, but his popularity among Latino voters actually grew—and Latino communities’ support in recent polling is split about 50–50 between Democrats and Republicans.
“Which ought to strike fear into Democratic politicians,” Smith says. But we haven’t seen any kind of adjustment to that new reality.
Instead, Democrats appear to continue to focus on cultural issues that play well with their base but may put off more moderate voters.
“The discourse on the political left is driven by phrases and ideas from academia that spread out to affiliated liberal organizations,” Smith says. And there’s an emphasis on using the “right words” and monitoring discourse.
“That’s very alienating to working-class voters of all races,” Smith says. He cites the growing use of the word “Latinx” as an example of this, and points to recent polling from Pew Research that shows that more than 65% of Hispanic voters prefer the word “Latinx” not be used to describe their communities, and only 10% of those who have heard the term prefer its use.
(“Hispanic” is the term with the most support within those populations, polling at 61% favorability, according to Pew, and “Latino” polled at 29% favorability. YES!’s style is to use either “Latino,” “Latina,” or “Latinx,” depending on the person’s preference.)
Elections are not won or lost on word choice, but diction can definitely have an effect in shaping the overarching narrative. Sen. Hillary Clinton’s “basket of deplorables” comment during her 2016 presidential campaign was widely considered an unforced error that confirmed the view that she was out of touch with many working-class White voters.
Which isn’t to say liberal politicians need to bend over backward and abandon progressive principles to woo White voters who may be on the fence. It does suggest that playing to the base isn’t often a winning strategy—Donald Trump experienced this in 2020—and that “outreach” is as much about learning and understanding from other groups as it is trying to pitch your message to them.
COVID-19 has undoubtedly harmed our ability to meet and communicate with those outside our own social groups. And it also isn’t feasible for everyone to run out and join bowling leagues—alleys have been in decline for years, and the pandemic didn’t help.
But now that the pandemic is receding (we hope), we may need to think not just about meeting our old friends and community again, but also about whether we are unintentionally limiting our experiences—and our understanding—to just those that confirm our worldviews. Making our society civil again may depend on being willing to listen and learn things that we don’t agree with.
Chris Winters is a senior editor at YES!, where he specializes in covering democracy and the economy. Chris has been a journalist for more than 20 years, writing for newspapers and magazines in the Seattle area. He’s covered everything from city council meetings to natural disasters, local to national news, and won numerous awards for his work. He is based in Seattle, and speaks English and Hungarian.