Do you hate your opponents?
The problem is not only that people confidently hold strongly opposing views with such confidence. I am a philosopher, so some of my closest colleagues think that my philosophical views are necessarily false—that my claims could not possibly be true.
They hold philosophical views that are as strongly opposed to mine as any view could be. They also hold their views with great confidence.
Nonetheless, we can still be friends. They do not think that I am stupid, dangerous, or immoral—I hope—just because I take some stands that are mistaken, in their opinion.
They listen carefully to me as I develop my positions, and they try their best to understand my perspective. They do not engage in verbal abuse or vicious jokes that distort my views for their fun at my expense. Instead, they give arguments and think carefully about how I would or could best reply.
At least many of them do. When opponents remain civil, we can learn from each other and stay friends.
Polarization understood simply as distance and homogeneity is not the fundamental problem. Indeed, a different problem would arise if there were too little distance between the parties.
Previous generations sometimes complained that the Republican and Democratic parties were so similar that voters did not have any significant choice between policy alternatives. Moreover, polarization understood as distance and homogeneity has not always led to intense conflict and gridlock, even when the presidency and Congress were divided between parties.
Two people who hold views at opposite ends of the political spectrum might still be able to cooperate if they share enough common goals, are humble enough to admit that they do not know the whole truth, and like each other enough to listen to each other, understand each other, and work toward mutually beneficial agreements.
In contrast, they won’t be able to accomplish anything if they despise each other, refuse to listen, are too overconfident, and lose all willingness or ability to reach a compromise.
What creates the practical problem, then, is not simply polarization understood as distance plus homogeneity but, instead, antagonism and the resultant inability to move past roadblocks.
Unfortunately, increasing polarization in the United States does engender more and more hatred or at least antagonism between the major political parties. In 1994, only 16% of Democrats and 17% of Republicans held a very unfavorable view of the other party.
By 2016, majorities in both parties expressed very unfavorable views of the other party: 58% of Republicans and 55% of Democrats. Even more alarmingly, 45% of Republicans in 2016 saw policies of the Democratic Party as “so misguided that they threaten the nation’s well-being,” and 41% of Democrats in 2016 felt the same about Republican Party policies. These percentages are much higher among consistently conservative Republicans and consistently liberal Democrats. Those who care about their country will fight what they see as threats to their country’s well-being, so they will have little or no incentive to work and live together with people whom they see as so dangerous.
This antipathy exists not just between parties and politicians. It extends into personal life. In 2010, 49% of Republicans and 33% of Democrats in the United States reported that they would be displeased if their child married outside of their political party, whereas less than 5% of both parties had said this in 1960.9 Polarized politics has infected personal relations.
It also affects where Americans live. In 2014, 50% of consistently conservative Republicans and 35% of consistently liberal Democrats agreed with the statement, “It is important to me to live in a place where most people share my political views.”10 As a result, consistent conservatives and consistent liberals often end up living in different locations, so they do not run into each other as often as they would if they lived next door to each other. Similarly, 63% of consistently conservative Republicans and 49% of consistently liberal Democrats agreed that “Most of my close friends share my political views.” None of these figures was nearly as high twenty years earlier. This geographical and social segregation makes it hard to see how these groups can ever start talking with each other or overcome their mutual antagonism.
Has the epidemic gone global?
So far my statistics and examples have focused on the United States, but the same problems exist elsewhere. Polarization runs rampant in many other countries throughout the world. Surprisingly, “On average, Americans view their parties as much further apart than voters in other countries.”11 However, the reverse is true: “On the economic dimension, the distance between Democrats and Republicans is not especially large relative to other countries. On the social dimension, the distance is quite small in comparative perspective.”12 Of course, even if distance between political parties is greater in other countries than in the United States, other aspects of polarization, such as gridlock, still might be worse in the United States than in those other countries, partly because of the many checks and balances written into the United States Constitution. Nonetheless, many examples show that distance between, coherence within, hatred of, and lack of reasoning between political parties is at least as fierce in other countries.
One example is the recent Brexit vote in the United Kingdom, which revealed deep and widespread social and ideological divisions. The recent migrant crisis has also produced extreme antagonism between left and right on the European continent. This unfortunate trend is not confined to Europe. Political polarization in Sri Lanka has led to outrageous hate speech on both sides.13 Polarization in Thailand has led to massive protests.14 Interestingly, South Korea and Taiwan exhibit high levels of affective polarization—antagonism toward political opponents—despite low levels of ideological polarization.15 Why would people within a country dislike each other so much when their political views are not very far apart? I cannot help but suspect that part of the cause is refusal to listen to the other side’s reasons.
Excerpt From: Walter Sinnott-Armstrong. “Think Again: How to Reason and Argue.”