We are arguably living in the most polarized time since the Civil War. And what’s more, the particular variety of polarization that presently plagues our society is an especially nasty one. Two kinds of polarization are spiking: negative polarization—“It’s not that I like my team, I just hate the other team”—and affective polarization—“Not only do I disagree with you, I think you’re a bad person.” According to the Pew Research Center, when asked to rate how they feel about people on the other side using a thermometer, the number of Democrats and Republicans who give one another “very cold” ratings has risen by 16 percent and 14 percent respectively since 2016. As the same report notes, increasing shares of partisans of both persuasions say those on the other side are “closed-minded” and “immoral.”
The fuel driving us apart has many ingredients, but let me rehearse a few. Many of the forces that used to bring us together are no more: a common enemy, a basic trust in our governing institutions, a shared conception of what the idea of America is, a fairly reliable bet that opportunity was widely distributed. Add to these crucial erosions the fact that media sources once shared across a wide swath of American life have been supplanted by media modalities whose success literally depends on their ability to generate outrage and division. Local community institutions have dissolved. Residential patterns of behaviour have shifted away from the neighbour and toward the self. Social isolation deepens unabated, and the structures that used to bring differently thinking people into positive contact with one another are now relegated to philanthropic grasps at hope.
All of this leaves the human mind susceptible to the temptations of tribal demonization, to incomplete if viscerally satisfying narratives of one’s own reality (as well as plausible narratives explaining the motivations of those you do not know), to political hatred, and eventually to violence. At this point, much of the most serious division in our country is explainable not by divergent values but by much more basic divergent impressions of what is going on. We are divided not only on questions of truth, but by reality itself.
This state of affairs leaves us in quite the pickle. Talk of bridge-building is on the rise, and the skills and virtues involved have arguably never been more necessary. But when it comes to political partisanship, do we really know what effective bridging requires?