Politics is a party game — and we’re taking the fall for it.
After watching the first 2020 presidential debate, I felt disappointed and helpless. With candidates seemingly more interested in commenting on one another’s personal characteristics than policy proposals, it’s clear that party affiliation has transcended a simple preference in governance. Extreme political polarization has driven us away from constructive conversation and created a divide in our country, one we must address if we want to have any hope for the future.
Our affinity for polarization is simply human nature. People crave inclusion, and within a party's ideological bounds, many find a sense of belonging. Once affiliated with a party, one’s desire to maintain their connection to the group encourages them to defend their alignment and follow the group's lead to maintain harmony.
Red flags look less drastic when those in your party are unfazed by them. In an effort to avoid rocking the boat, group members often justify and tolerate extreme opinions of party members, which can lead to the normalization of increasingly radical political figures.
After aligning with a party, we engage in confirmation bias, which furthers our entrenchment. We expect our political party to reflect certain values, and we expect the opposing political party to act in ways inconsistent with those values, seeking examples that reflect these expectations. By constantly looking for (and inevitably finding) examples that confirm our suspicions, we become increasingly devoted to our affiliated party, and naturally, opposed to the other.
Our tendency to make snap judgments about people and their political affiliations causes us to pit ourselves against each other. This lowers the likelihood of engaging in a critical conversation or even critical thought. The increasingly negative relationships between parties exacerbates the divide and heightens polarization.
Instead of focusing on important problems (including environmental concerns, issues of equity and access to quality health care) and how to fix them, we are pulled into echo chambers, which encourage us to support our party no matter the potential value of proposals from the other side. We villainize others and focus on sourcing information that supports our own comfortable worldview. We grow increasingly distant from neighbors, friends and family members of different parties.
Americans are more politically polarized today than we’ve been in the past two decades, and it’s dangerous. This has already resulted in ideological segregation of siloed communities and pressure to conform within political parties, and has been attributed to increasing rates of violence and hate crimes. Polarization, the resulting government shutdowns, stagnation in Congress and spread of misinformation is causing gridlock that prevents government progress — and leads to a poorly functioning government and decreased quality of life for all citizens.
It is important for us to be enthusiastic about participating in and discussing politics. The more people are informed and passionate about politics, the more they vote and the closer our democracy will come to reflecting the views of its citizens. However, enthusiasm channeled to critique an opposing party is useless. We must strive to think critically, to do research, to step outside of party lines and to turn away from candidates when they fail to promote our interests and beliefs.
Political parties have divided us more than they've done the opposite. Are we willingly giving up on our nation’s group identity for an injurious identification with polarized parties? Are we really willing to die on this hill?
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