In a recent article, I asked why political polarization is so prevalent in our time. Instead of going straight to the question of political parties and platforms, I wanted to examine deeper, underlying roots of our societal dysfunction. In a hyper-individualistic age, we are more suspicious toward institutions and toward our neighbors.

Today, I want to build on what I wrote in the previous article and show how the internet exacerbates the problem of polarization and, ironically, fragments and isolates us while giving us the illusion of connectedness.

The Internet and Who We Are

Why has the internet age increased political polarization, leading us to greater suspicion toward institutions and toward people around us? Yuval Levin describes well the appeal and the challenge of online connectedness:

The internet embodies the kind of society we are in the process of becoming: it is decentralized, personalized, and individualized. It possesses few large centers of authority and few strong mediating institutions, but many distinct, narrow circles of trust. It is well suited to chosen engagement and the creation of broad but shallow social networks, but poorly suited to reinforcing unchosen obligations and deep relational ties. 

It’s hard to disagree with that analysis, but there’s nothing there to indicate that the internet necessarily leads to political polarization. Shallow social networks, yes. Fewer sources of authority, yes. Decentralized and individualized conversations, yes. But why does it follow that polarization would be the outcome? Levin claims it’s because online the “middle” (the institutions or groups or family and friends that would be part of our natural community ties) gets hollowed out, while our online attention veers toward the extremes.

[The internet] allows us to stay in constant contact with our family and closest friends, and also to build loose networks with people around the nation and the world who might share a single interest or hobby, but at the expense of the more middling relationships we might otherwise have had with some of the people who constitute our actual real-world communities. 

The result of that disappearance of the middle—of the people right across the street, or in the workplace, or in the church pew—and the subsequent replacement of those people with avatars and faces on the other side of the country (or the world) is the diminishment of meaningful contact with different perspectives.

Our approach to socialization and friendship takes on the form of bifurcated concentration rather than a capacious middle space, limiting our exposure to different points of view while intensifying our commitments to our own points of view.

When the middle space disappears, and when friendships and group identities are formed no longer by geographic or communal ties but by political outlook, and when suspicion toward institutions or to our neighbors has grown, the result is that we become increasingly defined by who we oppose than by who we really are.

Defined By Who We Oppose

Kevin den Dulk, writing in Comment, believes it is not ideology or political preferences that cause our biggest divides. Instead, it’s “our deep-seated emotional responses to group identity. Polarization is tribal. But that tribalism is not merely about intense loyalty to partisan groups. Indeed, to the extent the United States has become more divided, the story is less about commitment to us than rejection of them.

Den Dulk points to the current state of our political parties to make the point, and I think he’s right. Two years ago, we were embroiled in an election season in which both the major parties seemed to be undergoing an identity crisis. The Republican Party was in the process of nominating someone who rejected much of the neo-conservative philosophy of the past three decades, opting instead for a populist revolt against the “establishment.” The Democrats were in a crisis of their own, with a democratic socialist leading a revolt against the frontrunner and her connections to big banks and business.

These identity crises haven’t abated. In fact, they’ve intensified. What does it mean to be a Democrat? What does it mean to be a Republican? Ask Democrats about what they stand for, and you’re likely to begin hearing about just how awful Donald Trump is (a Republican president). Ask Republicans what they stand for, and you’re likely to hear about the “insanity on the left.” This is a new kind of partisanship, a commitment based not on loyalty to a party’s philosophy, but on outright disdain and contempt for the other side. Den Dulk points to research showing that the widening partisan gap can be attributed to negative evaluations of the opposition, not growing loyalty toward one’s own party.

You can see this kind of polarization in a recent showdown between Jeanine Pirro and Whoopi Goldberg on The View. Pirro was there to discuss her new book, Liars, Leakers, and Liberals. (Notice how the book’s title is not a positive case for a Republican or conservative perspective but a tribal call to join her in opposition to the other side.) When the conversation turned to Trump and immigration, Whoopi spoke over Pirro and would not let her make a case for why Trump’s policies resonate with many Americans. The shouting match was not about what either woman was for, but about who they were against.

That brings us back to the populist surge among Democrats and Republicans. Den Dulk challenges the idea that a populist movement mobilizes “for the people.” Instead, the real focus for populist politicians is identifying “who opposes the people.” Decrying the elite—bankers, big business, the academy, the establishment—resounded in the campaigns of both Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump.

Church in a Culture of Contempt

The common response to political polarization is to say we need to do better at listening and understanding what the other side is saying. But the problem in our day, as we’ve seen, is that in the age of the internet our ability and desire to listen is low. Our fragmented and diminishing attention spans are signs that we are losing the capacity to listen well. Moreover, people on both sides of our political battles are not always able to articulate what they think, at least not in a coherent philosophy or worldview. It’s hard to listen to someone who finds you contemptible, and it’s hard to find the will to listen to someone you harbor utter disdain for. It’s hard to converse when people are not arguing in the pursuit of truth, but are instead alert only to signs of tribal identity.

How can the church stand out in this kind of world? More on that to follow soon.