Political Polarization: A Nation Divided

By Jack Bekos.

Surely the Thanksgiving table has never been so different. Above the roasted turkey, mashed potatoes, green beans, cranberry sauce and pumpkin pie is a new addition: the aggressive back-and-forth conversation of a widely divided political system. My climate-change-denying uncle and conservative grandpa take verbal swings at my self-proclaimed socialist aunt and liberal mother. Today’s “liberal” and “conservative” are farther apart than ever. To be one is to reject the other. It once seemed like such division was reserved only for my family’s disgruntled elders. How wrong I was. Political polarization affects my generation on an enormous scale, and I see it as the one issue that will define it for years to come. What has propelled this divide to such extreme proportions? The answer lies in the simple fact that Gen Z has been plunged into the era of the Internet ever since the comfort of the crib. We have grown up in a media-obsessed culture that has exposed us to terrorism, school shootings and financial crises. Never did we have to ask someone for information or directions. Instead, the unlimited information on our iPads and Macbooks meant relying on the Internet to form opinions and attitudes. As such, Gen Z has become one of the most individualistic generations ever, with beliefs that often discount the greater whole of society. This individualism has sparked fierceness in political leaning. Validation and confirmation of beliefs can be easily searched and found online and across social media, creating a dangerous battleground for political disagreement. I first saw hints of this polarization in high school, during the turbulence of the 2016 presidential election. It’s important to preface that Wisconsin as a state is both politically and electorally unpredictable. Regardless, the outcome of the election elated some and shocked others. What shocked me was the way social media played a role in the self-confirmation of political beliefs. Posts on Instagram ranged from honest to downright offensive. The one that sticks in my mind most clearly was a picture of a girl holding an American flag with the simple caption “#raisedright.” The comments section abounded with violent discourse. Some praised her in validation while others challenged her claim as insensitive and inexcusable. Can you see the divide widening? This polarization has continued even throughout my college experience, where any mention of political beliefs is met with either vehement agreement or intense rejection. Even in the politically homogenous city of Los Angeles and in the bubble of a university campus, political conversation is frequently avoided. This is not to say that clubs, organizations and movements alike do not successfully discuss, argue and posit their political beliefs. Rather, without certainty of an individual’s political beliefs and opinions, there is a noticeable safety in refraining from such conversations altogether. Social media remains an enduring and persistent threat to any attempts at slowing the rise of political polarization among younger generations. If anyone or anything is to blame, social media must be first and foremost considered. The way platforms like Twitter and Instagram have played a role in widening the divide between political parties in America is unprecedented. Individuals on both sides of the aisle are able to quickly post their opinions and attitudes on social media, whether or not the posts are informative, accusatory or contentious. But this is nothing new. In today’s world, what’s new is the way elected officials take jabs at one another via these platforms. Such strikes provide a dangerous example to individuals of all ages who see it as justification to do the same. Political polarization is not just an issue that affects those with political aspirations or ambitions. It affects all of us. For a number of reasons, political polarization presents a noticeable threat to this country, particularly to its emerging youth:​

1. Polarization creates fear- Individuals are much more likely to silence their beliefs and sentiments when others’ responses to their beliefs remain unknown. According to Pew Research Center, an increasing number of Americans say it's “stressful and frustrating” to discuss politics with people they disagree with. As a result, the benefits of appropriate argument and discourse are lost and a lack of an opposing point of view solidifies individual opinion. This creates a system in which individuals fear the loathing and judging response from someone who might hold different beliefs.

2. Polarization prevents political growth- When the gap between political parties is so extreme, lawmakers are unlikely to achieve their ultimate goals. Some might say: “Shouldn’t the parties just meet in the middle?” Yet an equitable deal is in the eye of the beholder- both parties define the optimal political outcome as one in which their side gets more of what it wants. This occurs even when public consensus on an issue remains high.

3. Polarization creates homogeneity- Individuals of both parties are likely to exhibit partisan behavior in their personal lives; they are more likely to have friends and prefer communities of like-minded people. Within a group, members feel more pressure to conform in their beliefs and actions, which makes internal dissent and diversity less likely (groupthink).

4. Polarization damages democracy- Both internal and external perceptions of America have been radically changed by a polarized population. In recent years, politicians have been quick to call their opponents immoral or corrupt, creating “us” and “them” camps- essentially in-groups and out-groups in society. For this reason, followers of an incumbent leader are much more likely to tolerate authoritarian or illiberal behavior to keep their leader in power. This undermines the fundamental meaning of a democracy.

Quite a few politicians and theorists have proposed solutions to the problem of polarization in America, but few have looked at the role social media plays in this phenomenon. What can be done to stop the extreme spilt that is occurring in America, especially online? On a basic level, I encourage respectful political discussion and discourse. I fundamentally believe that such discussion can begin to bring individuals closer together. And by discussion, I refer almost exclusively to in-person human-to-human discussion. On social media it becomes exceptionally easy to single out individuals or groups with different beliefs without suffering any repercussions. Yet in the real world, healthy debate and conversation can lead to mutual understanding, even if it is an understanding of disagreement, fostering empathy. Regardless, it is clear that strengthening the two-party system we currently have is not going to reduce polarization. Then what's the answer? Is the creation of a viable third party or centrist movement a solution? Is polarization strictly a national problem? Have Americans reached a consensus on any issues? Many of these questions remain unanswered. Some organizations have some ideas about this conundrum: to read more, visit uniteamerica.org. Please research your candidates and elected officials now, and in the upcoming 2020 election. Jack Bekos is a junior at the University of Southern California studying Business Administration and Spanish. He is on the pre law track and hopes to go into immigration or international law.


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