Potential Solutions to the Polarization Problem

Originally published 10/31/2018 on Arc Digital

There has been great interest among the chattering classes concerning the degradation of our democracy. The topics by now are familiar: political polarization, media fragmentation, the culture of outrage and demonization, conspiracy theories, election meddling, tribalism, populism, fake news, echo chambers, incivility, and so on. In many respects, these are overlapping and intersecting maladies. But by far the most significant effect of our polarized moment is the diminishing ability of Congress to address national challenges.

Some of the commentary on this issue is alarmist; some is purely analytical. Only occasionally are solutions actually suggested, such as legislative proposals, partisan crusades, or attitude adjustments. Let us evaluate a few of the solutions—though, fair warning: skepticism is merited.

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Alternatives to our “Zombie Democracy”

A Review of
How Democracy Ends (Author: David Runciman)

David Runciman is a bit scornful and pessimistic about contemporary democracy, though not without good reason. And he is Head of the Department of Politics and International Studies at Cambridge University, so his new book How Democracy Ends is no mere journalist’s screed. Thankfully, he does not believe that US democracy is about to be overthrown by coup or fascism (a thesis that has helped other recent authors sell a lot of books.) Rather, he foresees democracy as ineffectively bumbling on, in a kind of “half-life” democracy that could continue existing for a long time.

Runciman does admit to risks of what he refers to as “executive aggrandizement,” where public passivity enables an elected strongman to chip away at democracy by bullying democratic institutions, while still paying lip service to democracy. (Turkey’s Tayyip Erdogan is an example that comes to mind.) Of our current passivity, Runciman writes:

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You Can’t Fight Polarization Until You Understand It

A Review of
Uncivil Agreement: How Politics Became Our Identity (Author: Lilliana Mason)

Lilliana Mason uses extensive social psychology research to explain how today’s polarization works. The two parties have become heavily “sorted”, and victory for the “team” eclipses attention to actual issues. She concludes:

The social sorting of American partisans has changed the electorate into a group of voters who are relatively unresponsive to changing information or real national problems. The voting booths are increasingly occupied by those who fiercely want their side to win and consider the other party to be disastrous.

And there are real effects:

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