The Hidden Merit of Polarization

There has been much talk lately about the perils of polarization. If you were to turn on the television, read the paper, or innocently eavesdrop at a coffee shop, you’d inevitably hear of “the deep divide,” “hyper-partisanship,” and the like. I do think that, in these valuable discussions concerning the status of our country, there remains an important distinction to be made. It would seem that far too often polarization is confused with incivility. The former is an inevitable and essential component of our political process. The latter is every bit the dangerous and disturbing force that many Americans condemn.

Surely diversity is celebrated in our country, and rightly so. Racial, religious, and myriad other forms of variety are often touted as the hallmark of our great democracy. But intellectual diversity can come with various “hiccups” that make some uncomfortable. Ideas are so potent and so personal that there is a compulsion, especially in the arena of politics, to resist and avoid dissent. Worse still, in an effort to circumvent ideological argumentation, some engage in ad hominem, preferring an attack on character to substantive discussion. A concerted effort must be made to dispel the myth that if you disagree with a person you must hate them, or that if you agree with them you must love them. If we are to oust incivility from our discourse, we must abstain from making normative judgements about people, and instead reserve our contempt or praise for the ideas themselves. One might adopt the approach of the late Justice Scalia, who once remarked in an interview, “I attack ideas, I don’t attack people.”1 The supposed ills of polarization seem to evaporate when members of a discussion can adeptly separate character from politics, and refrain from an “us vs. them” mentality.2 (Rearrange footnote numbers in numerical order?)

Now that we have exposed that what is frequently meant by polarization is just incivility in disguise, I can offer my opinion on why the polarization of political inclinations occurs. It would seem that most political questions, though not specific implementations of policy, boil down to fundamental questions which often merely require a yes or no answer. Should the government directly intervene in times of dire economic crisis, or patiently wait out the storm? Should private businesses be forced to provide their services to all customers, regardless of the institution’s values and beliefs about a demographic? May a woman make that contentious decision of her own accord, and if so, at what stage? These topics necessarily generate conflict of such intensity3 that many are inclined to precisely the sort of incivility that I have already described. But the controversy surrounding these issues does more than engender incivility, it necessitates two (or more) clearly defined ideologies, which must then be discussed openly and unabashedly so that one can prevail and its corresponding policies be implemented. Does this sound familiar? This system4 the Framers so wisely designed allows for an intense, all-out warfare of ideas, which helps to prevent a similar battle of men.

Polarization, then, is not to be feared but to be expected. Cohesive ideologies must by their very nature come into conflict with one another, and there is no shame in feeling strongly about ideas. An ideological gap, and subsequent debate, is what helps to define the common values of America and to clarify how they change over time. It would seem, ironically, that our fierce divisions elucidate that which binds us together. So the next time you hear an omen from a close friend about the danger of the ideologically charged voter, you might suggest that we are supposed to be ideologically charged, so long as we remain polite.

This article was written by Alex McNamara. Click here to see more of Alex’s work.