Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

Healing the Poisonous Trend of Polarization

Michael J. Gerson


July 13, 2012

By Michael J. Gerson

This is a transcript of a radio address broadcast on KDCR radio in Sioux Center, Iowa.

The 2012 presidential election is about to begin in earnest, and it promises to be highly negative on all sides. Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney will depict President Barack Obama as a failed leader. Obama will dismiss Romney as an out-of-touch plutocrat. Super-PACs will feed the conflict with harsh advertisements, run round the clock.

These deep divisions are reflected in Congress as well. In the most recent full session of the House and Senate, every conservative Democrat had a more liberal voting record than the most liberal Republican, and vice versa. In other words, the voting patterns of the two parties did not overlap at all.     

We have a highly polarized political system. This is not unprecedented, but it is getting worse. And the most disturbing aspect is this: It is not just politicians who are divided.  The American public has grown more polarized. 

During the last 25 years, according to a recent Pew survey, political divisions based on partisan affiliation have grown dramatically, particularly on issues such as the environment and the role of government.

American voters are more ideological than they used to be. In 1984, about 10 percent of Americans placed themselves on the extreme left or the extreme right portions of the political spectrum. By 2004, the figure was 23 percent.

At least part of this development is rooted in the growth of partisan media.  Many Americans now get their news from highly ideological sources—partisan cable networks, partisan radio programs, partisan web sites. In general, these are not sources of information but of ammunition—arguments that confirm existing views and feed partisan outrage.       

This trend is destructive. It undermines bargaining between the parities in the legislative process. It alienates some citizens from political engagement, since the whole enterprise seems so soiled. And it turns near every political disagreement into a culture war debate, making social compromise far more difficult. 

This would be a problem in any time; it is a particular challenge in our own. There are a variety of difficult, long-term decisions that must be made to reduce the burdens of debt and lay the foundation for long-term economic growth. But none of them seem likely in the current, polarized political environment. 

Overcoming these divisions is a complex, long-term challenge for our nation’s leaders.  But because polarization is a problem of the whole nation, the whole nation needs to confront it. Individuals must learn to display political humility, recognizing that all truth is not contained in one party or one ideology. Citizens must honor the rights and dignity of those with whom they disagree, because hatred begins with dehumanization. And people of various ideological backgrounds will need to find shared projects in the common good—from fighting AIDS and malaria in Africa, to building opportunity in America’s inner cities.  The ultimate response to polarization is for citizens to build habits of humility, civility, trust and cooperation—and to reward those virtues in their leaders. 

—Michael J. Gerson is nationally syndicated columnist who appears twice weekly in The Washington Post and is the author of Heroic Conservatism (2007) and the co-author of City of Man: Religion and Politics in a New Era (2010).

“To respond to the author of this Commentary please email:
Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”