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  • Writer's pictureZach Elwood

How polarization reduces support for democracy

Updated: Jan 21

This is an excerpt from my book Defusing American Anger about our polarized views around immigration. To see all excerpts and learn more about them, go here.

The more polarized we become, the more we see our side’s political losses as devastating and scary. We see the other side’s political wins as causing real and serious harm to people and groups we care about. This makes us more intolerant of not getting our way. 

When this happens, the standard ways in which American governance works can start to seem unequal to the task of stopping the other side. 

On the right, this can manifest in increasing disrespect of the concept of democracy. Some conservatives call democracy “mob rule,” or will say “America is a republic, not a democracy.” And this feeling helps explain why some people are okay with calling elections illegitimate, making it harder to vote, and attempting to take the reins of power however they can. There is likely also some contrarianism present where, because liberals praise democracy, some conservatives feel a pressure to denigrate democracy. 

The left can have its own impatience with democracy, even as they use different language. There can be more of a feeling that “the system can’t help us” and that the good people can’t sit idly by as bad things happen, even if those bad things happened via a democratic process. These frustrations can manifest with more protesting, with some of that being on the more militant and harassing side. This helps explain some militant people fighting with cops and fighting with opponent groups in the street. More people can start to hold vigilante-like beliefs that there’s no recourse for justice using “the system.” 

And this can help explain some of the more aggressive protesting behaviors, like following and harassing opponent political leaders (for example, as has happened several times to congressperson Kyrsten Sinema), or protesting at the homes of political leaders or judges. Harassing political opponents in their private lives can start to make sense when you’ve come to believe that normal political activism and strategies are not sufficient to accomplish your goals. 

In Mark Lilla’s book The Once and Future Liberal, he talks about the romantic but unhelpful ideas that many on the left have about the nature of societal change: 

[Romantics] prefer to think of [politics] as a zero-sum confrontation—the People against Power, or Civilization against the Mob. And it’s not hard to see why. What could be more stirring than history seen as a series of revolutions, counterrevolutions, restorations, manifestos, mass marches, dissidents, police repression, general strikes, arrests, jailbreaks, anarchist bombings, and assassinations? And what could be more dreary than the history of parties and public administration and treaties? [...]

But as the 1970s flowed into the 1980s, movement politics began to be seen by many liberals as an alternative rather than a supplement to an institutional politics, and by some as being more legitimate. [...]

The movements that reshaped our country over the last half century did much good, especially in changing, as we say, hearts and minds. [...] But over the long term they are incapable of achieving concrete political ends on their own. They need system politicians and public officials sympathetic to movement aims but willing to engage in the slow, patient work of campaigning for office, drawing up legislation, making trades to get it passed, and then overseeing bureaucracies to see that it is enforced. 

On the liberal side, there can also be a belief that the solution might be in restricting more speech. To quote Erica Etelson, the author of Beyond Contempt: “I think that the left has fallen into a bit of a delusion in thinking that by stopping things from being said, that you're stopping people from believing those things." This helps explain the more aggressive examples of liberals shouting down and attempting to banish people whose speech is considered offensive and dangerous. When we feel that the system is broken and unfair, there’s no recourse but us meting out the punishments ourselves. 

Across the political spectrum, feelings that “the system can no longer help us in our righteous fight” can manifest in more protesting and rioting behavior, and sometimes street violence. Luckily our street violence has been relatively restrained, but if polarization gets worse, we can expect more of that. More people will come to believe that our problems must be solved by us-versus-them confrontations and vigilante justice, and not through our more standard governmental and legal processes. And that can create a feedback loop, with more and more people focusing on the violence of the “other side” to bolster their us-versus-them narratives. Violence begets violence. 

If we want to become a more stable and sane country, we all need to face the fact that many of our fellow citizens believe very different things from us, and that this won’t be changing. Other people can have very different values. Even when many of those values are shared, they’ll often manifest in different forms. And when we’re very polarized, we’ll perceive even more differences on the “other side” than there really are. 

And we are in this together, for better or worse. The people who we may think are very wrong are not going away. They won’t suddenly realize they’re wrong just because we tell them they are. 

We must face the fact that democracy is not something designed to achieve “progress,” however you define that. A democracy is not something that ensures a society will always be improving. The only purpose of a democracy is to resolve differences without violence. It’s essentially a “might makes right” system. It’s a popularity contest. It will often lead to outcomes that upset and anger many people. But we should still be grateful for it: if it does nothing else, it helps us avoid bloodshed and chaos. 

As Winston Churchill said, “Democracy is the worst form of government except for all others.” It’s of course imperfect, like any human endeavor is, but there’s no better way we know of. 

I highly recommend Robert Talisse’s book Sustaining Democracy: in that book, he writes about the challenges of sustaining a democracy even as many of us see our fellow citizens as immoral and dangerous. (For a summary of his ideas, check out my interview of Talisse.) 

And, of course it’s true, as some conservatives like to point out, that America is not a pure democracy. It’s a representative democracy: we elect our leaders, and they make decisions. 

And we also have an electoral college system that gives more voting power to people in some states than in others. Liberals who are unhappy with the electoral college must face the fact that that is the way our system is, for better or worse. If we dislike it, we must work to change it. But there’s no use in pretending that it’s not the system we have.

Conservatives should be willing to acknowledge that America is a democracy, and be willing to criticize those on their side who denigrate democracy. America is a representative democracy; it is a democratic republic; this is how it was built. And democracy is a necessary system for resolving our disagreements without violence. Conservatives can hopefully see that the more conservatives denigrate democracy, the more people will come to see Republicans as scary, authoritarian, and un-American.

Conservatives should also be willing to see that, if the tables were turned and Democrats were only winning elections because of the electoral college, conservatives would be upset with the electoral college. It might be worth pointing out that, as recently as 2012, Americans’ views on the electoral college were much more aligned. In a 2012 Pew Research survey, 69% of Democrats said they disliked the electoral college, and 54% of Republicans said the same. 

The more we act as if our problems can’t be solved within the political system we’ve got, the  more we’ll heighten our tensions and anxieties. The more we act as if our problems can only be solved outside the system—via protests, or riots, or street violence, or rigging of systems, or harassment of our political opponents—the more we’ll create an environment of chaos and instability. The more we reach for aggressive outside-the-system solutions, the more we’ll encourage our political opponents to do the same. 

Maybe we’ve all lost sight of what the true risks are here. Maybe we’ve become so comfortable with our modern lives that we’ve forgotten what’s truly at stake. We’re living in the best time period that’s ever existed, in terms of safety and in terms of comfort, and in one of the easiest places to live in the world. Maybe we’ve lost sight of just how hard the world can be, of just how violent and brutish and oppressive most of human history has been, and of how rough and dangerous many parts of the world are even now. 

Maybe we’ve become spoiled. Maybe, being so distant from the much more serious threats and stresses that people face in developing countries, we’ve come to feel that we’ll always get our way. Maybe we’re spoiled in expecting that the world and the people in it will always bend to our demands. Maybe we’re spoiled in thinking that America must be the way we want it to be. 

Maybe the ease of modern life has caused some of us to grow bored with life, filled with an existential angst. Maybe some of us are looking for ways to create meaning and excitement, and so we are drawn to join the exciting battles raging around us. 

Maybe the better and more fair society, however you define that, is many years away. Maybe we are on the path to the world you envision, but there will be some setbacks along the way. Maybe our current conflicts are a necessary stage we have to go through to reach that better, more fair society you envision. Seeing things from a more long-term, historical perspective can help reduce our anger.  

Or maybe the future will be horribly dystopian. Maybe oppressive, authoritarian actions might be taken by this or that political group in the future. Maybe we’ll all be killed in a few years time by a man-made disease, or a nuclear war, or some as-yet-to-be-invented new dangerous technology. 

There can be real benefits to thinking about our current situation in the context of the brutal nature of human history. There can be real benefits to being grateful things aren’t much worse for us, as they once were and might one day again be. This can help put things in perspective. It also helps us see how our excessive anger with each other might help bring about those worst-case scenarios. 

In The Once and Future Liberal, Lilla argues that many people, on both the left and the right, have become overly individualistic and have lost sight of what being a citizen means. On the left, there’s a focus on the self, on one’s race, sexual preference, gender, or other identity, but not often on what it means to be a citizen in a country where people will often disagree. Similarly, on the right, there’s a focus on individual rights, but not much talk about how an individual fits into the broader society or what they might owe that society. It’s possible to see the left’s focus on identity as being somewhat similar to the right’s focus on rugged individualism. Maybe our divides have a lot to do with all of us in the modern world simply becoming more focused on ourselves. 

I’ll quote from Lilla’s book below, on the importance of focusing on our shared citizenship. He aims this appeal at liberals, but, with Trump and others Republicans often referring to themselves as the “real Americans,” I think it’s a message for conservatives, too: 

The only way out of this conundrum is to appeal to something that as Americans we all share but which has nothing to do with our identities, without denying the existence and importance of the latter. And there is something, if only liberals would again begin to speak of it: citizenship. 

Admittedly, the word citizen has a musty air and conjures up images, for people of a certain age, of schoolteachers tapping blackboards with wooden pointers during civics class. But it has great democratic—and Democratic—potential, especially today. That is because citizenship is a political status, nothing less and nothing more. To say that we are all citizens is not to say that we are all alike in every respect. It is a social fact that many Americans today think of themselves in terms of identity groups, but there is no reason why they cannot simultaneously think of themselves as political citizens like everyone else. Both ideas can be—indeed, are—true. What’s crucial at this juncture in our history is to concentrate on this shared political status, not on our other manifest differences. Citizenship is a crucial weapon in the battle against Reaganite dogma because it brings home the fact that we are part of a legitimate common enterprise that We, the people have freely willed into being. That we are not elementary particles. [...]

And the concept of citizenship has one additional advantage. It provides a political language for speaking about a solidarity that transcends identity attachments. Democratic citizenship implies reciprocal rights and duties. We have duties because we have rights; we enjoy rights because we do our duty. [...]

In the absence of a motivating charitable faith, the only way one can hope to induce a sense of duty is by establishing some sort of identification between the privileged and the disadvantaged. Citizenship is not an identity in the way we currently use the term, but it provides one possible way of encouraging people to identify with one another. Or at least it provides a way to talk about what they already share. 

We focus too much on grand narratives about America, on attempting to define what America is. But America, like any country, is just a bunch of people, and people are flawed. They will make mistakes. Some will do bad and even horrible things. But none of those past Americans, or the horrible things they’ve done, or even the good things they’ve done, define America. Because the only concept of America that matters is the one that exists right now, in the present, with the people around us. We are the people who make America what it is now. 

As Richard Rorty says in Achieving Our Country: “Stories about what a nation has been and should try to be are not attempts at accurate representation, but rather attempts to forge a moral identity.” There is no one “right” narrative about a country as big and complex as ours. And this points to the importance of us forging a positive story, a story of hope, a story that inspires all of us to be better to each other.

I’ll be honest: I’m pessimistic about America’s future. I think there’s a good chance our best times are behind us and that things will continue to get worse. I’m scared about how greedy we can be, and I’m worried about the destruction of the natural world. I’m disappointed at how easily we see the worst in other people, and disappointed that even people who preach love and tolerance can sometimes be so hateful and judgmental. 

And yet I’m not angry at humanity. Sure, I think humans can be weak, and dumb, and greedy, and I myself have been and can be all those things. And yet, I look around and see people who are struggling with the stresses of existence, the stresses of being thrust into a world that none of us asked to enter, a world that can be for many of us confusing and alienating and scary. 

I can’t be mad at people because they are, like me, imperfect beings, just trying to make their way through a strange and crazy world. What is there to get mad at? Humanity? Nature? God? Consciousness? The universe? I can’t discern a target for my anger. 

And maybe if we’d focus more on our shared humanity, and recognize that we can be respectful to each other even while strongly disagreeing, we’ll help make America’s future brighter, and make all of our future’s brighter.

This has been an excerpt from Defusing American Anger.

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