Potential Solutions to the Polarization Problem

Originally published 10/31/2018 on Arc Digital

Lindsey Graham

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.

Let’s dispense with the simplest, most common one first.

(1) Partisan Victory

Here’s the animating thought for this solution: If “our” party wins power, we can forge consensus and start solving national problems.

The spurious reasoning here is obvious. Power swings like a pendulum between the Democratic and Republican parties, but in recent decades each swing has been more amplified, and party-line votes have become more rigid. Partisans fuel political polarization. The more usual, Manichaean battle-cry is rather: If we can vanquish our enemy, we can stop their stupidity/insanity/immorality.

This “solution” tends to be heard more frequently from whichever party is out of power. With the midterms now imminent, “vote them out” is a chorus among Democrats. Less is said about what their proposals are for reducing polarization.

(2) Mechanical Repairs

By any reasonable assessment of fairness, gerrymandering and an out-of-proportion electoral college are wrong and should be fixed. But two questions must be asked: (1) if they were fixed, would political polarization diminish at all? and (2) how likely is it that such worthy legislation will pass during our lifetimes?

Democrats would likely benefit more from such reforms, and if such structural disadvantages were eliminated, one could rather optimistically argue that liberal anger would lessen. But would Democrats and Republicans then be able to work together? It’s not a strong argument.

And there are yet other electoral-reform proposals. Ranked-choice voting is touted as a theoretical way to break the stranglehold of the two-party system. Direct primaries could be rolled back. Voting could be made mandatory. And if Citizens United were legislatively overturned, voter alienation might be lessened. Irrespective of their merit, though, none of these changes are very likely to happen.

(3) Contact Theory

In sociology it is hypothesized that stereotyping and prejudice can be reduced by appropriately-structured interpersonal contact. For example, Lilliana Mason has suggested that if partisan news media were compelled to present opposing partisans in more sympathetic ways, then negative stereotyping might diminish, and the “temperature” of public rhetoric would decrease.

The huge countervailing force, however, is the accelerated partisan “sorting” that is occurring. The views of Democrats and of Republicans are more homogeneous today than ever before and, as Mason has shown, homogeneity tends to feed vilification of the opposition. Sorting has also been geographic, which means it is becoming less and less common for Americans to interact with people who are different from them.

Better Angels is one prominent new initiative that arranges for small groups of mixed-party citizens to have structured in-person meetings to discuss political issues in a civil manner. But it is difficult to see how such an approach could scale.

(4) Devolution of Power

Some voices advocate reducing the importance of the national debates by pushing power away from the federal government and toward state and local, where civic engagement and rational decision-making are easier. Citizens could even vote with their feet, argues Ilya Somin, and move into the communities that are run the best.

Unfortunately this nostalgic vision runs against the tide of history. While centralization has downsides, centralization of many government functions is generally more efficient, especially with the advent of information technologies. And like it or not, the world is ever more interconnected.

In this age of media, as Daniel Hopkins has shown, politics has become fully nationalized, and this is unlikely to change. Voters only absorb information about national political storylines, and usually do not even know any of the candidates on their state and local ballots.

(5) Media Regulation

Both mass media and social media today are cited as contributing causes of escalating polarization. In the case of our ratings-driven news media, outrage is what sells, which results in a focus on scandal and celebrity melodrama. For both types of media, so-called “echo chambers” result when people self-select their media diet in a way that exposes them only to the views of fellow partisans.

Laws against phenomena like hate speech and deceptive advertising do exist, and the irritant of fake news is being addressed. However, freedom of speech, particularly in the U.S., is generally regarded as inviolable, and a Fairness Doctrine won’t be coming back when the internet gives every voice a microphone. And so it is doubtful that meaningful regulation could occur. How can we tell private news organizations what stories they may or may not publish? And, in politics in particular, how could any referee objectively decide which incendiary statements are or are not true?

(6) Enlightened Patriotism

Political scientists such as Yascha Mounk and Francis Fukuyama have recently called for a push to educate Americans about the Enlightenment values that guided the framing of the U.S. Constitution. Mounk warns against teaching college students that the institutions of Western civilization are fundamentally oppressive. Fukuyama advocates replacing partisan, gender, racial, and religious tribalism with a renewed national identity that reveres values like constitutionalism and rule of law, and that leads all Americans to feel they are on the same team.

While the general idea is laudable, for the vast majority of citizens this approach is too uninteresting and esoteric. A rote civics “catechism” is learned in secondary school and then forgotten because the knowledge has no useful value. More to the point, the issue is not that anyone on the left or right doesn’t like the Constitution. It is, rather, that they do not like each other, and many are frustrated that their government is ineffectual.

* * *

Our national issues are pressing: immigration policy, stagnant wages, rising debt, climate policy, health care—and these are just a sampling. Although they are all addressable in theory, the current atmosphere of public dialogue makes it difficult or impossible in practice, and the incentives of parties and other stakeholders are going in the wrong direction. Aside from routine, technical matters, the temperature is simply too high for even small bipartisan confidence-building measures to be enacted. As long as the party apparatuses and the media continue to produce the river of outrage, the polarization will continue.

Since there is little to be done about the supply of outrage, the only counteraction may be to reduce the demand — that is, stimulate ordinary voters to repudiate it. If voters could more easily recognize political chicanery for what it is, and have a better sense of where the core of policy questions actually lie, the political and media establishment would have to adapt. Partisan ideologues might not move much, but the resolve of moderates would strengthen, and antagonism to outrage might even grow. Educating voters about national issues could serve to lower the temperature of our national dialogue, creating space for constructive action.

Of course, everyone applauds education, but there are reasons to doubt that it could be accomplished. For example, theorists like Jason Brennan and Bryan Caplan stress that, by a rational calculation of personal self-interest, the cost of getting informed far exceeds the payoff of a correct vote. That ignores, though, how interested people are in politics — however irrationally — and how much passion they have about the country’s future.

Even so, the amount of effort required to attain competence about policy would be prohibitive for ordinary citizens. However, the bar need not be set excessively high: by just absorbing key facts about current issues, citizens can become discerning, skeptical consumers of public statements about those issues.

For this to happen, there undoubtedly would be several requirements:

  • Probably the only scalable approach would be an online resource.
  • The learning would need to be made as attractive and painless as the current state of the art allows.
  • The source would need to be respected and trusted by most citizens.
  • At least some appreciation for both sides of issues would somehow need to be encouraged.

From the above list, the third and fourth requirements would present the greatest challenge. As such a resource gained traction, it would inevitably attract partisan suspicions. Strategies would be needed to meet these, such as academic or expert imprimatur, transparent design methodologies, and appropriate governance. Branding and marketing would also be critical for creating a public perception that the resource is both authoritative and fair.

Meanwhile, facilitation of “bipartisan” learning would clearly be a design challenge. Of course, explanations of both sides of each issue could be included easily enough. But partisan voters might not be interested in the other side’s opinions; or, worse, seeing opposing explanations could even harden some partisan voter’s views, if the experience is poorly designed. Encouraging appreciation of the other side starts, necessarily, with setting expectations before visitors get into the content, but would also require delicate balancing in the overall design of the resource.

It would be wise not to expect that any such resource could simply cause partisans to relocate to the middle. In fact, the more that it insinuated that you need to find common ground, the quicker that many partisans would reject it. A more nonchalant approach might get better results. In any event, the most important thing is that each visitor walk away with greater knowledge of the issues; this result, by itself, would subsequently reduce a citizen’s tolerance for public partisan rhetoric — from either side — about those issues.

Lastly, cost might be an issue. To achieve adequate quality and attractiveness, the production cost would likely soar into the tens of millions. Just as perspective, though: in the 2016 election, $6.5 billion was spent on presidential and congressional campaigns.

Giving interested citizens an actual understanding of issues could improve the public dialogue and reduce the atmospheric temperature. But there could be a second benefit as well.

Fukuyama has explained that voting no longer provides citizens enough of a sense of recognition and dignity. That tends to fuel tribalism: citizens are unhappy being regarded as mere pawns in an elite power contest, so they merge their identities with a rancorous tribe.

But when they are better able to form their own opinions about important issues, it could help them to feel empowered and proud. Instead of being driven by negative emotion, they could judge issues with some self-assurance. They’d regard their biased news feeds more skeptically, and they would demand more realism from politicians and media. This enhanced sense of dignity might, on balance, nudge their focus away from tribal victory and towards national success.

It’s an optimistic vision, certainly, and runs counter to the gloominess served up by the chattering classes. But if the alternative is surrendering to the inevitability of polarization, then we will have fully given up.

3 comments on “Potential Solutions to the Polarization Problem

  1. I don’t think the presented solution would work, in the sense of producing good policy. You seem to think that the middle, or moderate, position is where we should be, and that is not the case for many very important issues, especially foreign policy. For many issues, both the Democrats and Republicans are way off, and other voices are not heard. I think some of the mechanical solutions you dismiss are necessary, and we should think outside and box more. Not to say your solution is bad, just that it really wouldn’t solve the policy issues; it might very well solve your issue at hand – that of partisan division.

    • Thanks for the comment, Bob. I can’t guess from it what you believe our foreign policy ought to be. But in general I agree that neither the Democrats nor the Republicans have the right answers for many issues.

      As regards “mechanical” fixes, I think there are many worth striving for—particularly legislative rules and practices. Though I’m not optimistic that any of them will put much of a dent in the larger problems of political polarization in this country. And (I’d argue that) such mechanical fixes are not likely to happen without a greater amount of popular will, especially from moderates. Politicians need to know that they will be rewarded for such actions. And where will that popular will come except from greater citizen knowledge? (I realize I’m speaking in generalities here.)

      As I said in the article, voters can’t be policy wonks. But if they have a greater understanding of issues, they’ll be better judges of public statements by politicians. And purveyors of bad (or ridiculous) proposals will tend to have less electoral success.

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