I speak and write quite a bit about American political polarization. I’m alarmed by the extent of mutual partisan loathing and enmity. It’s terrible, it’s getting worse, and I’m convinced that—unchecked—it’s a threat to our national existence. There is no law of nature that says that a diverse, continent-sized, multi-ethnic, multi-faith democracy will always remain united.
To understand the reality of our political polarization, I highly recommend diving into More in Common’s outstanding research on America’s “hidden tribes.” They dive deep into American political attitudes and find that much of America’s polarization is driven by roughly one-third of the population—the “devoted conservatives” and “traditional conservatives” on the right, and the “progressive activists” on the left. “Traditional conservatives” (16 percent of the population) are defined as people who are religious, patriotic, and highly moralistic. They also “believe deeply in personal responsibility and self-reliance.” The “devoted conservatives” (6 percent) are “deeply engaged with politics” and tend to “perceive themselves as the last defenders of traditional values that are under threat. “Progressive Activists” are “deeply concerned with issues concerning equity, fairness, and America’s direction today. They “tend to be more secular, cosmopolitan, and highly engaged with social media.”
The devoted devoted conservatives and progressive activists in particular are people with a disproportionate amount of wealth and who spend a disproportionate amount of time on politics as a hobby. They have resources, they’re engaged, and they’re angry. They’re a minority, but they tend to dominate public discourse—even as an “exhausted majority” retreats from political engagement and longs for an alternative.
The rage of the “wings” is well-known. We can see it every day on social media. We can see and hear the fury at many political rallies and events. The reasons for that rage are complex, but let me advance an under-appreciated reason why red-pilled Uncle Karl and his woke niece Alice hate each other so darn much.
The story starts with public apathy.
I haven’t been a writer all my life. I spent most of my professional career (21 years!) as a litigator, and for most of that time I worked for public-interest law firms. My practice focused on the First Amendment, and it required that I focus not just on the court of law, but also on the court of public opinion. I wasn’t just a lawyer, I was a legal activist, and I saw firsthand how hard it was to motivate the public to actually care about important constitutional concerns.
If you try to raise awareness (much less money) from people with busy lives and multiple family responsibilities, the first thing you learn is that it is extraordinarily difficult to break through to the public with a proportionate, measured message. If your message implies, “I’m working on something important, but there is no true emergency.” Or, “I’m concerned, but there’s no crisis,” then prepare to face indifference.
No, the tried and true activist message is simple—“The threat is dire, and we’re the last line of defense.”
None of this is new. “Scare grandma with direct mail” has funded much of the conservative movement for a generation (or more). But technology has made the experience much, much more intense. Sign one online petition, and you magically find yourself on a dozen new mailing lists. Start clicking on alarmist social media posts, and you start to tell the algorithm that’s what you want to see. It’s hard to merely put your toe in the water politically. Test the temperature with a small donation, and within days, five scam PACs, nine breathless email messages, and four Facebook ads are deluging you with some variation of the same message, “They hate you! They want to destroy you! Only I can save you!”
There are Americans who recoil from this like they’ve touched a boiling cauldron. “Just stop,” they say, and they furiously unsubscribe, ignore political posts, and go back to talking about the Tennessee Titans, the Memphis Grizzlies, and the utter dominance of SEC football (ideally, anyway). But there are millions of other Americans who have a very different reaction.
“I had no idea things were so terrible!”
As the messages flood your inbox, and the posts flood your feeds, concern grows to alarm, and alarm turns into rage. And if you’re looking for things to be angry about, there’s always a fresh outrage, somewhere. The immediate nationalization of every volatile local event means that a politically engaged American can know within hours (sometimes minutes) after someone punches a kid wearing a MAGA hat in Des Moines, or if a busybody white woman calls the cops on black kids who are innocently grilling in a Sacramento park.
Instantly, each incident becomes emblematic of the other side’s perfidy. It’s as if the scales fall from the eyes, and you see the world anew. You’re “woke.” You’re “red-pilled.” You’re not simply “Jane” anymore. You’re “Deplorable Jane,” and it’s your mission in life to own the libs.
But the strange thing is that this new life doesn’t actually awaken you to reality, it deceives you. It distorts the truth. One of the most fascinating aspects of the hidden tribes research is its finding that Americans on the “wings” have the most twisted views of the other side. The wings are far more likely to believe that political opponents are more extreme than they really are. In crucial ways their political engagement is increasing not just their political extremism, but also their political ignorance. They consistently accept opposing extremism as the norm, when it is not.
This is where, when someone makes an assertion that ignores facts, I ask: “Evidence?”
There’s no simple solution to this problem. I routinely tell people that the two types of pieces I write that cause the most dramatic negative reaction either 1) criticize Donald Trump; or 2) argue that a particular problem is a concern and not a crisis. It’s as if an argument that a problem isn’t an emergency is viewed as detrimental to the cause of public mobilization and public activism. And they’re probably right. When was the last time 10,000 people flooded the streets of a state capital chanting, “We’re concerned! We’re concerned!”?
Leadership does matter, however. And partisans respond to winning politicians. If someone can turn down the temperature and win while doing it, perhaps we can chip away at the culture of permanent outrage.
I agree with French that it’s a mistake to assume that “They hate you! They want to destroy you!” is credibly followed by “Only I can save you!” That is because politicians care about your vote, and your money to fund their campaign. And that’s it. The next politician who helps me will be the first. I have written before that there is no place in this state, and I’ve lived in seven different places, where I have felt I got my tax money’s worth. I am confident that I will die thinking the same thing, because it’s the truth.
What French sees as a crisis is the logical result of the growth of government beyond anything this country’s founders intended. When government does more and taxes and regulates more (in whichever ideological direction), the stakes in elections go up. When the stakes go up, the rhetoric gets more intense, and candidates will do anything short of murder (and that’s on the way, no doubt) to win. And doing anything encompasses raising and spending money, rhetoric from supporters and opponents, and basically everything wrong with American politics today.
The fact that people of opposing political views get along more often than not in the non-political world is not significant. Put them in the political arena, particularly when the stakes are higher than a town board position, and watch what happens.
How you stop that is not by having more reasonable-sounding candidates winning. Today’s politics include numerous examples of how bite is worse than bark. The only way for this to stop before the next real civil war is to take away politicians’ power.