Is Polarization Bad?

We all know the claims: America is more polarized than it has been in nearly a century. Polarization has been blamed for America’s failure to contain COVID, for our partisan gridlock, for a whole host of problems both local and federal. It certainly sounds bad.

But is it?

I get why people think it is. Take this New York Times article, “Is America Hopelessly Polarized, or Just Allergic to Politics?” In it, political science professors Samara Klar, Yanna Krupnikov and John Barry Ryan discuss their methodology:

Like other recent polls and surveys, ours asked people whether they would be happy or unhappy if they had a child who married someone from the opposing party, Republican or Democratic.

But what if there was more to politics than party affiliation? What if the reason there was increasing polarization… was because there was just more tension? For instance, if one group of people was hoarding wealth taken from another group of people and then using those resources to solidify a political system that operated in their favor, that tension would be pretty understandable, right?

Apropos of nothing, here are two random graphs.

From “Introducing the Distributional Financial Accounts of the United States” at the Federal Reserve

Did you know that the richest 20% are the only group in America that have gained wealth since the Great Recession? Everyone else has lost wealth. Were you aware that just three families have increased their wealth by an average of 5,869% since 1982, wealth that is given to their kids?

If we were to completely eliminate political parties, the Kochs would still be doing truly monstrous things to the communities and workers they control. The Waltons would still be destroying local business, either through low-cost imports or by decimating small, family-owned stores. Homes would still be lost. Families would still be torn apart.

So, is polarization bad? Polarization isn’t anything; it’s a symptom, not a disease. Indeed, one could argue that things only got this bad because we weren’t polarized, because people didn’t want to talk about politics. We can talk about the damage that the Reagan, Bush, and Trump administrations have done by shoveling money into the hands of their wealthiest supporters… but it was the Clinton administration demolished welfare and passed a brutal crime bill that further destroyed many poor communities. And it was the Obama administration that prioritized saving banks over saving homes, not to mention the effects of ICE on many working families.

Polarization is just what the media calls friction in the political sphere. Often times, the friction itself is painted as inherently negative, as though doing anything is an inherent good. I would argue that inaction is superior to bad action, and that polarization is sometimes necessary.

For instance, since the 1970s there has been a broad, bipartisan agreement that workers should not have many rights. In that time period, unions have been weakened and laws have been passed saying that workers can be fired at any time for any reason. The stance “workers don’t deserve basic rights” absolutely should get pushback.

Just like polarization is not inherently bad… well, that doesn’t mean it’s great either. One issue in the UK right now is a truly incredible rise in deep and profound transphobia. From celebrities to major media outlets, this has become a hardline conservative issue for a lot of people. The stance, “trans people have basic human rights” should not really get any pushback, and yet the polarization here means that the rights of trans people are under constant threat. What cannot happen is to allow that position to become the default, to depolarize the issue of trans rights at the cost of trans lives.

To revisit the New York Times article I cited earlier:

The real issue, it turns out, might not be with polarization. It might just be that most people really don’t like politics. Americans are open to people with all sorts of political and partisan opinions, our research shows — as long as they keep those opinions to themselves.

If you leave my blog with one thing, I hope it is this: Politics is not a game. There are real, human consequences to the votes you cast and the organizations you support. Today, many of us are stuck quarantining inside our homes, while many more are being forced to risk their health and safety to make sure there is still food on the shelves for us to eat. Those people are underpaid and underprotected, because for decades, we feared the friction that comes with disagreement.

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