Political Polarization

To be one is to reject the other

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 invalidation 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 successfully discuss, argue, and posit their political beliefs. Rather, without the certainty of an individual’s political beliefs and opinions, there is a noticeable safety in refraining from such conversation 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, Instagram, and TikTok 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 other via these platforms. Such strikes provide a dangerous example to individuals of all ages who see it as justification to do the same.

At the core of such polarization is the president of the United States. One of Donald Trump’s campaign strategies, now and in 2016, is his blatant victimization of others. During his 2016 campaign, he and his advisors exploited immigrants as the greatest enemies of the American people. Calls to “Keep America Safe” and “Build the Wall” dominated his speeches and tweets. Trump ran a campaign that fanned the flames of racial resentment in the United States by aligning himself with prominent white nationalist groups. Many influential studies point to racial resentment and prejudice as the primary explanation for Trump’s unwavering support among white voters. At the core of his campaign strategy is the goal to incite these racially resentful whites. As the world saw, this strategy worked.

It is clear that such a strategy continues today. While the white nationalist upsurge undoubtedly led to Trump’s election in 2016, scholars argue that such an upsurge was part of a broader wave of reactionary racism that swept across the Western world, reflective of anxieties over globalization, immigration, and cultural diversification. Such a wave of reactionary racism does not exist in 2020. Trump struggles to foster the same nationalist charge that fueled his victory four years ago. In an era of passionate anti-racism across the country, Trump turns instead to the victimization of a more surprising group: his fellow Americans.

The way Trump antagonizes his liberal opposition has never changed. For years he has called his opponents evil, criminal, crooked, and radical. The way Trump vilely classifies those who oppose him is unprecedented in modern American politics. As Trump promotes out-group hostility, so too do his followers resent the other. Trump and his followers survive off of a dangerous form of racial polarization and ethnocentrism. In this view, ingroup attitudes of superiority, preference, and loyalty are strongly contrasted with anti-outgroup attitudes of hostility and contempt. To be a Trump supporter is to be hostile towards your opposition. I recently received an unsolicited email from the Trump campaign. The email reads:

“Time and time again, you’ve stood by my side and shown the Left that this is YOUR country, not theirs.”

This is directly from the Donald Trump campaign to its supporters. Trump is using polarizing language with the hopes that it will guarantee his victory as it did in 2016. After all, outgroup hostility was the single most important element in his win. What this means for the future of American politics is up for debate. What we do know for sure is that our polarized state is a failed state; political polarization is a direct cause of the multi-leveled failure in handling the COVID pandemic, the current economic fallout, as well as social upheaval. What Americans are finally seeing is that their powerful polarization isn’t so benign after all.

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 its “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 to their beliefs and actions, which makes internal dissent and diversity less likely (groupthink, ethnocentrism, etc).

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 (Trump supporters). This undermines the fundamental meaning of 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 spilled that is occurring in America, especially online? On a basic level, I encourage respectful political discussion and discourse. I fundamentally believe that such a 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. If voting by mail, please submit your votes by October 20.