Perspective: What people get wrong about political polarization
Transitioning from a tribal mindset to a pluralistic mindset goes against our wiring but it’s the solution to our current divisions
I worry deeply about polarization in the United States, especially the possibility of polarization leading to violence. I work to try to reduce that possibility every day. (I previously co-founded OpenMind with Jonathan Haidt and Caroline Mehl, where we created online educational materials to teach people how to have more constructive disagreements.)
In my work, I’ve noticed five common misconceptions that are becoming widely accepted, from the state of polarization to how to solve it.
1. “Polarization in the United States is worse than ever.”
I can think of at least one time polarization was way worse than it is now — between 1861 and 1865, when the Civil War was going on. Today’s abortion debates, which admittedly can be nasty, do not compare to violence of the 1970s and 1980s when there were 110 cases of arson or bombings.
Moreover, the nostalgia of “civil politics” in the good ol’ days is mostly a myth: Prominent people have always insulted each other publicly and demonized supporters of their opponents.
2. “Polarization is caused by race/religion/politics.”
In the Oscar-winning film “Belfast,” one character captures this sentiment when explaining Ireland’s conflict known as “The Troubles” to a little boy: “It’s all bloody religion. That’s the problem.” In other words: If there weren’t Catholics and Protestants, we would not be fighting.
Yet religion itself cannot be the cause. There are many countries in which multiple religions co-exist, and no nationwide violent conflict erupts as a direct result of religious differences (one example: the United States). And conversely, there is violent strife in multiple countries that is not caused by religion.
In his essay series about polarization, Tim Urban astutely points out that in the United States, we have mostly substituted traditional bigotry for “political bigotry,” which he defines as hatred toward people just because of their politics.
But it’s not race or religion, or even politics, that divides people. People divide people. This happens when people have a tribal mindset and see others as “stupid” or “evil” because of their political affiliation.
Of course, characteristics such as race were historically the manifestations of tribal mindsets at their worst (especially in the United States). However, even if race, religion and politics did not exist, the tribal mindset would find a way to divide people. One only has to look at small communities where residents have nearly everything in common yet develop tribal affinities over seemingly minor issues that turn into open hostilities.
3. “We can solve polarization by cracking down on misinformation.”
The proliferation of misinformation is an unfortunate byproduct of freedom of speech. The question is: Is the trade-off worth it?
History has the answer. There is a direct correlation between more freedom of information and less violent conflict — not to mention more freedom and more prosperity.
There may be more misinformation today than ever, but there is also more true information today than ever. A thought experiment demonstrates this: Do you think the average person had a better understanding of the world today, or 150 years ago? Or even 100 years ago? Or 50?
In its first years, the printing press was used to disseminate religious propaganda; soon people learned not to trust everything they read on paper. In the early days of radio, the medium felt so realistic that a dramatic reading of “The War of the Worlds” caused widespread panic; soon people learned not to believe everything they heard on the airwaves. In the early days of reality TV, everyone thought it was, well, reality; now we know a lot of what airs on those shows is staged.
We are still in the early days of another new kind of media; the dust will settle and people will wise up.
4. “X is a threat to democracy.” (X = critical race theory, Fox News, COVID-19 lockdowns, Elon Musk buying Twitter, etc.)
The bigger threat to democracy, I contend, is people saying that.
In the United States, democracy is often the ideal we hold above all others, the sacred value worth preserving at all costs. When we label someone a “threat to democracy,” we are implying that extreme actions are justified in stopping them.
As soon as we say that someone is a threat to democracy, we justify demonizing them, publicly shaming their group and sometimes even committing violence. That, in turn, makes the other side feel justified in exacting a similar response, and the cycle continues.
Of course, there are some real threats for which extreme action is justified. Similarly, there is a line a person can cross that should put them outside the bounds of acceptable discourse. Few people contend that line does not exist; we just argue over where it is.
A good litmus test: If you are the one labeling someone “evil” by virtue of an extremist group affiliation — e.g., “Trump supporters are neo-Nazis” or “Bernie supporters are Stalinists” — then you are probably contributing to the problem.
5. “Democracy is what makes the United States worth saving.”
Representative democracy is an incredible form of government, probably the best one ever attempted.
But it is neither innovative (it existed thousands of years ago in ancient Greece) nor unique (there are 70-plus democracies worldwide). Many of these other democracies are not nearly as prosperous nor have had the high levels of well-being as citizens of the United States.
What has allowed the United States to stand apart? The central innovation of our founding was pluralism: the ideal of living alongside people of different value systems. Ever since the 1780s, the country has been referred to as a melting pot. In Alexis de Tocqueville’s travels in the 1830s, he marveled at American pluralism.
This innovative society relied — and continues to rely — on a brilliant logical truth: everyone should be able to live out whatever value systems they want, so long as they don’t infringe on others’ ability to do so themselves.
Anyone can practice whatever values they want to in the United States, as long as at least one of those values is pluralism. Thus, it is the one value we share — and it is also the solution to polarization.
A mindset change
Americans must respect the rights of another person (including their right to speak freely) not only because it’s the moral thing to do, but also because they might be right and you might be wrong. We must draw the line somewhere, but we can make an effort to draw it a few steps further than where we may be otherwise inclined.
We must not only be willing to live alongside people who think differently, but also be eager to engage with them. Before labeling an entire group as stupid or insane, we must first seek out honest interactions with individuals in that group.
Transitioning from a tribal mindset to a pluralistic mindset goes against our wiring, but it can be done. Most of us do it many times every day, just as we also fall prey to our more primitive tribal nature several times in a day. If all of us could improve our ratio by as little as 20 percentage points, I believe we will be safely off the path toward polarization-driven violence.
This fix is contrarian because it is not public policy — it’s not something the government, or even a group of leaders, can do for us. Certainly, education can help, as can good parenting, good role modeling and good community building. But ultimately, a pluralistic mindset is an ideal that each of us must work toward as individuals.
And if you think I am stupid or evil for saying that, I look forward to discussing your opinion and getting to know each other. We are on the same side.
Raffi Grinberg is the executive director of Dialog, which was co-founded by Peter Thiel and Auren Hoffman in 2006 to bring together ideologically diverse global leaders for deep, off-the-record conversations. He previously co-founded OpenMind and taught the course “Adulting 101” at Boston College.