Sometimes it is salutary to cast a wider view to better grasp local challenges that may appear intractable. If there are commonalities elsewhere, it suggests that the problems may be systemic not idiosyncratic and require change at a fundamental level. The following is excised from an essay, “Democracy and the polarization trap” by Professor Robert Talisse, with US politics in mind. We have inserted “Guyana” for “USA” in the excerpt, to emphasize the commonalities and analytical insight.
“According to a nuanced view, the problem of polarization consists neither in the intensification of partisan animosity, nor in the abandoning of common ground. Rather, it has to do with the sources of animosity and intransigence, and how they create a self-reinforcing loop of political dysfunction. To see this, we must distinguish political polarization from belief polarization.
Political polarization is a measure of the ideological distance between opposed parties. When it is severe, the common ground between opponents recedes, resulting in the familiar logjams, standoffs, inflexibility, and resentment.
Belief polarization (also called group polarization) is a cognitive phenomenon that besets likeminded groups. Roughly, interaction with likeminded others transforms us into more extreme versions of ourselves. When surrounded by allies, we come to embrace more radical formulations of our ideas. Our more extreme selves are also overly confident, so we become less responsive to counter-evidence, more dismissive of criticism, and more ready to engage in risky behavior on behalf of our views.
Belief polarization also causes us to develop negative feelings towards those unlike ourselves. As we grow to regard their ideas as naïve, irrational, and unfounded, we come to see them as craven, untrustworthy, and benighted. Thus, as we shift towards political extremity, we come more fully to define ourselves and others in terms of partisanship, dividing the world into political allies and foes. Eventually politics expands beyond policy ideas into entire lifestyles.
In the Guyana today, the size of one’s family, the interior of one’s home, where one buys groceries, and what one does on vacation are all tightly indicative of one’s politics. Everyday activities have become expressive of one’s political identity, and thus of one’s contempt for the out-group. Meanwhile, partisan rifts barely track actual policy disagreements. For example, citizens across the spectrum tend to agree that the minimum wage should be raised and that steps should be taken to create affordable housing for low and middle income families. A cross-partisan majority also thinks that politics is too heavily influenced by money.
The two forms of polarization form a self-reinforcing loop. When citizens are divided into partisan tribes, living separate lives and each fixated on contempt for the other, politicians are incentivized to amplify cross-partisan hostility. And because the citizenry is divided over lifestyle choices rather than policy ideas, office holders are released from the usual electoral pressure to advance a legislative platform. They can gain reelection simply on their antagonism. Governing and campaigning strictly by stoking hostility and contempt for the other side becomes prudent strategy.
As politicians amplify their rifts, citizens are cued to further segregate. This foments additional belief polarization, which in turn rewards political intransigence among parties and officials. Democracy gets submerged in the merely symbolic and tribal. As a result, our capacities for responsible citizenship — specifically, our aptitude for navigating political disagreement — atrophy. We become enamored with the profoundly antidemocratic view that democracy is possible only among people who are just like ourselves.
That’s the nuanced story. It doesn’t claim that “both sides” have deserted the common ground. It doesn’t assign equal blame to both parties. It is consistent with the view that one major political party in the Guyana has embraced antidemocratic ideals. The nuanced story asserts only that the dysfunction of polarization lies in the interaction between well-established cognitive forces and institutional features of democracy. The claim is not that deep partisan rifts are intrinsically bad, but rather that polarization is degenerative of the capacities of responsible citizenship.