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December 19, 2014
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Long division


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.

Conservative historian Francis Fukuyama said in a recent article in The American Interest, “A well-designed democratic political system should mitigate underlying social disagreement and allow the society to come to a consensus on important issues. There is plenty of evidence, however, that the U.S. political system does exactly the opposite: It actually magnifies and exacerbates underlying conflicts, and it makes consensual decision-making more difficult” (www.the-american-interest.com/article.cfm?piece=1114). CNN’s Jack Cafferty said in response to the Pew study, “The polarization of America is like a cancer that is slowly killing us. And like many forms of cancer, there appears to be no cure.”

So what should be done? Paradoxically enough, I would like to suggest that the solution lies in having more political parties—or rather, in having a political system that allows more parties to participate in meaningful and effective ways. I think that citizens, given more points of view to choose from, would find the extremes less attractive. Power would be spread more widely, and therefore more thinly. Rather than a linear spectrum, pulling citizens to one end or the other, we would have a circular one.

A true multiparty democracy has its own problems, of course—just ask anyone who lives in Italy, or Israel—but it should be eminently clear by now that the old two-party system is no longer adequate to address the problems that face us as Americans.

I mean, I don’t want to suggest that our present system is destined to lead us into a new civil war...

No. I take that back. That is exactly what I mean to suggest. Somebody prove me wrong.