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Long division

June 14, 2012

Those tireless pollsters at the Pew Research Center’s “People and the Press” project (www.people-press.org) recently released the results of their latest study—results that really should come as a surprise to no one. The Pew researchers say that, in terms of values and basic beliefs, Americans have become increasingly polarized along partisan lines over the last couple of decades. In fact, according to the study, political divisions have become the most significant in our society—exceeding the divisions that you might expect to find along gender, age, race, or even class lines. (You can read all the details at www.people-press.org/2012/06/04/partisan-polarization-surges-in-bush-oba....)

Polarization per se isn’t necessarily an evil, of course. Enforced unity, after all, is a hallmark of fascist states. Democracy thrives on the productive interplay of different points of view, and that interplay requires that people take strong and specific stands on the issues of the day. But when a nation becomes over-polarized, a number of things begin to happen, none of which are good for the survival of a democratic republic.

Communication between the polarized populations breaks down, as words themselves get interpreted as “code” by one side or the other, or lose their meaning altogether. Misunderstanding leads to mistrust and then to fear, replacing friendships, neighborly respect and even familial ties. Groups begin to “self-segregate,” and increasingly strive to avoid the most mundane social interactions with their opposites. Social status, even economic survival, can depend on being allied with the “correct” political grouping. Political dialogue, no matter what the issue, becomes a Manichean battle between the Good Us and the Evil Them. Compromise itself becomes a sin. From there, it is but a short step towards the dehumanization of “the other,” political vigilante violence, and “ideological cleansing.” Eventually, social cohesion itself fails, and all of a sudden you find that you’re living in Sarajevo. Or Rwanda.