Does America Have A Polarization Problem?

Published: Wednesday, March 6, 2019 - 12:40pm
Updated: Wednesday, March 6, 2019 - 12:48pm
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STEVE GOLDSTEIN: The realm of U.S. politics continues to be one where polarization dominates and winning seems even more important than it did in the past. Michael Cohen's testimony before Congress was just one recent example with House members working to score points and one up each other rather than ask questions or actually listen. Jonathan Rauch, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, believes polarization at least in this moment is continuing to grow and not only in politics. Rauch was recently in the Valley for a conference presented by ASU's School of Civic and Economic Thought and Leadership. The conference was titled "Polarization and Civil Disagreement: Confronting America's Civic Crisis." I spoke with Rauch there and started by asking him how big a problem polarization is and to what extent we're seeing it in ways that are outside the political realm.

JONATHON RAUCH: It's a big problem. It's making it not impossible but steadily harder for us to govern ourselves. It's making it harder to compromise. If you think the other side is fundamentally evil, not just wrong on the issues, but fundamentally evil or a threat. We're seeing more and more of that and, to your second question, it's changed in complexion. Ten years ago, 15 years ago we were polarizing, but it was around issues: big government, small government, abortion. Increasingly, it's less about issues than it is about a belief that the other side, the other tribe is out to get us. That's much harder to deal with when it becomes an inner personal tribal identity conflict. And that's where we're headed.

GOLDSTEIN: Well, the big question then is why do you think that happened? Because it seems striking it seems odd that some event would have occurred. And what do you think did that?

RAUCH: Well, the interesting question is why it doesn't happen, because humans are wired to be tribal. You know we're wired to go paint our faces and shake our spears and yell at the tribe on the next hill most human societies throughout most of history until very recently were tribal and then we built this great liberal society with all of these fantastic institutions and depersonalized processes like voting, and oddly it seemed to work. But, the real question is why we're not tribal all the time. But there's a lot of conjecture about this. I think the most interesting one comes from a psychologist, social psychologist, named Jonathan height. And he says it's really hard to have a liberal impersonal society where you trust other people to follow the rules and so you follow them yourselves. You have to get a lot of settings right. And we started taking those things for granted. About 40 or 50 years ago we started just assuming all that stuff and we started messing with the dials and weakening the institutions and chipping away at the norms. And once you start to do that the tribalism starts to boil up.

GOLDSTEIN: Does that say something bad about us as humans as individuals, then, if we sort of need these institutions to remind us that we should do a certain thing.

RAUCH: Well, we are the way we are, right Steve? Where, you know, we're wired to be very difficult to govern. But I don't know that it says something bad about us as humans. It says we are human, but it's actually a strength in the human condition that we can create these magnificent institutions like the U.S. government and these rules like the U.S. Constitution and all of these public norms we depend on like honesty and truthfulness. But it also means we can't ever take them for granted. We have to remember we were not evolved to do these very complicated societies that we've got and if we're not careful, the old style tribalist identity politics where we just organize into little groups around hating the other group, that will come back.

GOLDSTEIN: So we look at our political scene, if we look at members of Congress, there is sort of the push — generally — I'm not saying it's momentum for this, but the idea of getting new leadership, different people in, throw the bums out, whatever it may be. Is there a balancing point to find between those who have been in office for 20 to 30 years, and then someone like Ocasio-Cortez, who's this young person who hasn't been in the system, can we find a way to work those two together?

RAUCH: Yeah, you need both. You need to have people who have been around for a long time who know the ropes and you also need people who have these deep political bank accounts a lot of debts because politics is all about collecting debts that others owe you and doing favors for other people and you can't do that if you just arrived and have no debts. But you also need young people to come in. The key though is you need some of both and you need institutions in the middle that will help you select the right mix of people. Historically, that's what political parties have done. Well part of the problem, big part I think, is what I called "disintermediation." That's where people decided started in the '70s that direct democracy will always work better and that amateurs will always be more honest and competent than professionals. Well turns out not to be true. It turns out that for all kinds of reasons, you need professionals and middlemen to sort things out in politics to help select and vet candidates to make sure you don't have sociopath ticket to do the very complicated work organizing decision making and place like Congress to coordinate all the interest groups. We weakened a lot of that stuff with campaign finance reform, reducing the amount of pork barrel spending that went — on pork was a great way to trade stuff to get compromise done.

GOLDSTEIN: Is polarization going to get worse from here before it gets better?

RAUCH: You know, I don't know. If you look at it from the top down, it looks like it's getting worse. If you look at it from the bottom up, there's some really positive signs. I'm on the board of a national grassroots depolarizing movement called Better Angels. We've got workshops going now depolarizing communities in upwards of 30 states, it's catching on like wildfire and it's only one of many different civic groups that are actually working on this problem in local communities. People don't like what's happening, Steve. They want to get active in beginning to begin to reassert some civic and civic togetherness. And we're starting to see that, you know, America has been through worse, the worst may be behind us, but only if we take the problem seriously.

GOLDSTEIN: Well, I that's what I'm wondering is, if the powerbrokers benefit too much in the polarization, whereas the rest of us really don't, is there more incentive for them to sort of push us into our camps and, I don't know, say, play games with us that makes us all sound like sheep? But I wonder about that sometimes.

RAUCH: Yeah. Part of what's happened here is deliberate, often well-intentioned, not people saying “how can I wreck democracy?” But people discovered, for example, if you're an activist with a cause well a good way to deal with that to get attention for that to raise money is to scare people. Send them e-mails saying send me $25 or the other side will win and your lifestyle will come to an end, you won't be able to celebrate your religion in the public square, whatever it may be. It turns out, the outrage button is easy to press and that people are not very good at resisting that. And of course social media makes that very inexpensive to do. It also turns out that if you're a self-interested demagogic politician, you can press those same buttons and you can create a lot of controversy, which will get you a lot of free press. Turns out if you're a media style watchman or a media figure and you want to make a name for yourself you can call the other side traitors. So yeah, there's a lot of people pushing these buttons. And the question for the rest of us is can we reorganize to defend ourselves against those buttons?

GOLDSTEIN: That was Jonathan Roush a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. We spoke recently at a conference today at ASU's "Polarization and Civil Disagreement Confronting America's Civic Crisis."

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