Why Are We So Politically Polarized?

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Isolation. Fragmentation. Polarization.

These are realities confronting our society today—problems that leave people feeling lonely and alienated from others. The pain of rejection and loneliness often pushes people toward self-protection, which leads to their retreat into cocoons of like-minded people or the caverns of their selves, thus reinforcing the cycle of polarization and isolation that led to some of these feelings in the first place.

The danger of a culture that leads to isolation is that “sin demands to have a man by himself,” as Bonhoeffer wrote in Life Together. “It withdraws him from the community.” The Devil can have a heyday with someone when sin flourishes in isolation. Unfortunately, societal forces are arrayed against true community, especially a community that can stay unified despite significant differences.

It’s hard to be the church in this kind of world.

We’re going to return to the question of how the church can stand out in a world of political partisanship and polarization, but first, we need to examine a few reasons why we’ve grown so polarized in the first place.

Suspicion Toward Institutions

The first reason is that our trust in institutions has plummeted. In a consumer society filled with choice after choice, and in a technologically advanced age filled with opportunities to invent and reinvent ourselves online, we are increasingly disoriented. We make more choices than ever before, but we feel less confident about the choices we’ve made.

In the past, institutions provided a buffer between the state and the individual. The family, the neighborhood, the church, the union—all of these groups provided a constraint of sorts on the types of choices we might make. We trusted these “mediating institutions” as a source of guidance in helping us navigate the choices we confront.

Today, we over-trust the self and view institutions with suspicion. As associations fall away, and as affinity groups disappear and mediating institutions weaken, we’re left with the lone individual and the state. No wonder every single political issue seems so fraught with peril. We instinctively feel like everyone’s individual liberty is at stake, and so we turn to Congress or the Courts to ensure that our pursuit of personal choice and individual freedom will continue without hindrance.

George Packer explains that society has undergone an “Unwinding”—a process in which our individual freedom expands while our community ties and institutions “unwind.”

The unwinding brings freedom, more than the world has ever granted, and to more kinds of people than ever before—freedom to go away, freedom to return, freedom to change your story, get your facts, get hired, get fired, get high, marry, divorce, go broke, begin again, start a business, have it both ways, take it to the limit, walk away from the ruins, succeed beyond your dreams and boast about it, fail abjectly and try again. And with freedom the unwinding brings its illusions, for all these pursuits are as fragile as thought balloons popping against circumstances. 

Sounds exhilarating, doesn’t it? But there’s a downside:

This much freedom leaves you on your own. More Americans than ever before live alone, but even a family can exist in isolation, just managing to survive in the shadow of a huge military base without a soul to lend a hand. A shiny new community can spring up overnight miles from anywhere, then fade away just as fast. An old city can lose its industrial foundation and two-thirds of its people, while all its mainstays—churches, government, businesses, charities, unions—fall like building flats in a strong wind, hardly making a sound. Alone on a landscape without solid structures, Americans have to improvise their own destinies, plot their own stories of success and salvation.

We call this “freedom,” but it’s a narrow definition and understanding of freedom, and this way of life may be something we think we want, but regret it when we have it.

Suspicion Toward Our Neighbors

The second reason for our politicized world is the decline of trust we have in others. In a world of increasing diversity, with more options for pursuing whatever it is we want in life, we re-conceive our purpose in life as finding and becoming ourselves. When everyone thinks personal self-growth and self-fulfillment are the end-all and be-all in life, we are more likely to see other people in terms of their usefulness (are they helping me fulfill my destiny?) or their opposition (are they getting in the way of my dream?).

In a recent article in Comment magazine, Kevin R. den Dulk explains how markers of political identity often help us know what we are not, but usually don’t give us confidence in who we are. In other words, our isolation and fragmentation lead us to create a self-understanding based in opposition toward others, a negative view of “what we are not” instead of a positive understanding of what we really stand for. He writes:

The markers of political identity [worked] as alarm bells, not invitations. Difference was more telling than co-partisanship. The key question was not whether [someone] was one of us, but whether he was one of them. 

Social networks work in this way. . . . They offer us a sense of belonging, a recognition that a church or workplace or family’s living room gathers your people together. We usually attribute that sense of belonging to attraction and choice: I liked the group, so I joined it. But we often (want to?) forget the reverse: Our group life also signals our disloyalties, the “out-groups” we reject. In terms of how groups shape identity, we are not only—or even primarily—what we love. We are also defined by what we distrust.

There’s a third reason why we’ve grown so politically polarized. It’s the internet and the kind of hyper-connected world it creates in our imagination. More on that in a future article.

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