Sometimes it seems the only thing Americans agree on is that we’re too polarized to agree. The term is thrown about by folks of all political stripes. Glenn Beck recently lamented, for example, that even faced with the now-documented Russian intelligence operation, “we’re far too polarized” to galvanize a response. In 2016, Pew Research reported that more than 40 percent of both Democrats and Republicans view members of the opposing party as more closed-minded and dishonest than other Americans. Sure sounds polarized to me.
But this sweeping verdict on our culture is itself a big problem. In at least five ways it impedes our understanding of what’s really going on and hinders our grasp of solutions.
1) The polarization trope hides Americans’ deep unity on matters that may count most: rules governing how our democracy makes choices. Here’s what I mean: 82 percent of us believe that the wealthy have too much influence in politics, and 85 percent want a serious overhaul of campaign finance. Imagine: more unity on these key democracy reforms than even, say, on our national passion for pro football.
Surprisingly, there is even considerable common ground on specific issues presumed to be contentious. About two-thirds of us favor tighter gun laws. Sixty-nine percent support limits on greenhouse-gas emissions in the United States as part of an international agreement. And taxes? More than six in 10 of us believe upper-income Americans do not pay enough, while 82 percent are bothered—either “some” or “a lot”—that corporations are failing to pay their fair share.
2) “Polarization” conjures up images of two nodes moving more or less equally away from their ideological centers. Yet a telling graph in Democracy in America? by professors Benjamin I. Page and Martin Gilens reveals a different picture. It tracks the movement of congressional Republicans and Democrats away from their ideological centers between 1975 and 2015. It turns out that the extent of each party’s movement is far from equal, as the widening gap separating the two is overwhelmingly the result of Republicans “moving sharply to the right,” the authors note.
3) “Polarization” suggests a self-propelled movement toward the respective ideological poles. Wrong again. In fact, one cohort, the Republican party, has been relentlessly pulled toward the extreme right by a powerful, orchestrated, antidemocratic movement that has systematically manipulated public opinion and rigged the rules of our democracy, resulting in even more extreme right-wing views.
If that sounds like a conspiracy theory, it’s not. These efforts are now widely documented as, for example, in Jane Mayer’s expertly researched, award-winning Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right. Thus, Ronald Reagan’s 1981 declaration that “government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem” was no stand-alone quip. Unknown to most of us, the billionaire families featured in Dark Money have, with remarkable focus and discipline, marshaled their great wealth to infuse an anti-public-good/pro-market extremism throughout our culture. The Koch, Olin, Scaife, Mercer, and DeVos families, among others, have funded think tanks, higher-education centers, media strategies, lobbying, and electoral campaigns to turn Americans against government. Simultaneously, they’ve sought to privatize public goods, from schools to prisons, and to remove safeguards protecting citizens, undermining environmental standards, union organizing rights, and voting rights.
Perhaps most destructive has been this antidemocracy movement’s success in delegitimizing government itself by contributing to its dysfunction. Making governing nasty helps turn citizens off. Long before Grover Norquist announced in 2001 his goal of shrinking government enough that he could “drown it in the bathtub,” Newt Gingrich declared in the 1980s that politics had to be fought with a “scale, a duration and a savagery…of civil wars.” He encouraged Republicans to describe Democrats as traitors, as well as corrupt, pathetic, and sick. Little wonder that trust in government by 2017 hit 18 percent, near a historic low.
4) “Polarization” can suggest that we are immutably stuck in opposition to each other, making us less likely to see big majorities coming together across party divides for democracy reforms. When Illinois passed automatic voter registration last summer, for example, the vote was not only bipartisan, but unanimous. In Alaska, our second-reddest state, almost two-thirds approved this reform. Or consider South Dakota. Through its entire history, Republicans have been victorious in more than 80 percent of statewide elections; yet, in 2016, voters passed one of the nation’s most sweeping democracy-reform measures. True, the threatened legislature repealed it, but its obstruction doesn’t erase this evidence of citizens’ uniting for democracy.
5) Finally, the incessant message that we’re “too polarized” to find common ground can deter us from focusing on avoidable, yet deepening inequality and insecurity harming almost all of us. But a focus on addressing such widely shared economic pain has perhaps the greatest potential to unify most Americans toward solutions. After all, less than a third of us feel our economy is fair.
So, let’s toss the simple polarization diagnosis. Yes, it’s true that we’ve been actively divided in the service of an elite minority, but we can unite in our vast agreement, revealed in the polls above, that in a democracy each of us has the right to a voice and a fair chance—sentiments guiding the growing Democracy Movement. In it, millions of gutsy Americans are fighting for reforms that range from voting rights to the public financing of elections. Shedding half-truths about ourselves is a great place to start in building a democracy that works for all.