We Shall Overcome… Polarization?

Abraham Lincoln, regarded by many as the greatest president the U.S. has ever had, once said: “A house divided against itself cannot stand”. With a presidential election to be held on November 3, the U.S. finds itself in a state that is more divided than at any other point after World War II. The ever-increasing polarization in American politics plays a decisive role in this context. Generally, political polarization means that political attitudes increasingly diverge to ideological extremes. In the American case, we have witnessed a growing gap between “liberals” (the American term for left) and “conservatives”, Democrats and Republicans, over the past few decades. Today, almost all liberals affiliate themselves with the Democrats and almost all conservatives join the Republicans, with the number of moderates dropping consistently. According to the Pew Research Center, this has resulted in an increase of 15 percentage points to 36 points in the ideological gap between the two parties since 1994.

As a consequence of this “hyper-partisanship”, there are no longer liberal Republicans and conservative Democrats, which had been the case for many decades. It is self-evident that compromise between the two parties in Congress has become tremendously difficult as a result, with representatives voting along party lines. While strong party discipline might be a natural thing in many European countries, the American political system of “checks and balances” relies on compromise and understanding between the two parties, and without it, major legislation cannot be passed. The increasing number of government shutdowns since the 1990s is exemplary of that kind of partisanship.

Speaking of the 1990s – this decade can partly help us explain why polarization has increased by so much, at least from a media perspective. Before that, national TV networks such as the “Big Three” CBS, ABC and NBC were the main news source of many Americans. This led to a common narrative of the political discourse. This changed, however, with the increasing diversification of news media in the 1990s. For example, the conservative TV channel Fox News was established in 1996 and this was also the time when conservative radio hosts such as Rush Limbaugh gained attention. Limbaugh’s ultra-conservative radio shows ultimately became one of the most-listened-to programs in the United States. The media landscape has become even more diverse since then. More liberal voters will today rather read the New York Times or the Washington Post and watch TV channels such as MSNBC and CNN, whereas conservative voters will turn on Fox News or read the New York Post or the Washington Times or listen to Rush Limbaugh. 

This has resulted in two different narratives of the “state of the union” or, to put it more drastically: Americans live in two different countries depending on whether you are conservative or liberal. Adding to the ideological distance, Americans nowadays increasingly live in like-minded communities, meaning that they only talk to like-minded neighbors, which adds to that divergence towards extreme positions: if all people around me think like I do, I must be right and that guy on television must be wrong. Without any contact with persons from the other political spectrum, open political debates become impossible.

What role will polarization play in the election campaign this year then? Whoever becomes the Democratic presidential nominee at the party’s National Convention in Milwaukee in July and whoever will then meet Donald Trump in the general election in November: we should brace ourselves for more ugly rhetoric and two visions of America that are fundamentally different from one another, at least in this election cycle. Donald Trump will tout his accomplishments such as the rise in employment numbers, the nomination of conservative judges, that he survived the Democratic “impeachment witch hunt” or that he rolled back environmental regulations. His opponent, on the other hand, will most likely denounce him as the most corrupt president in modern history and attack him on his efforts to repeal Obamacare, the U.S. withdrawal from the Paris Climate Agreement and will point to the fact that students are drowning in debt. 

Whatever candidate becomes president this year or in future elections, this person should encourage all Americans across the country to publicly engage in their political system once again. This cannot be done by just voting every two or four years. One way of overcoming polarization could be to hold assemblies where people from different backgrounds and political beliefs come together and deliberate on policies in their hometowns. When people leave their “filter bubble” and come into contact with people with different political beliefs, they might realize that they are not as bad as extreme TV or radio hosts suggest.

And what can we, as citizens of the European Union, learn from the American case? Our party and voting systems are, of course, different from that of the U.S. However, we must never fall into the trap of distancing us from people who do not have the same political opinion like us. If we do that, then we fall back into our respective tribes and at some point, we will not be able to reach solutions that may benefit the people of our countries. Political differences will always exist and that is vital for a democracy to a certain degree. But we have to understand that this binary thinking like in the U.S. – either you think like us or you are bad – is not a normal state – compromise should always be possible and not be used as a curse word. It might be bothering and daunting, but let us have honest and open discussions about what matters most to us and work on common solutions. And even if we may not agree on everything, we can still respect the opinion and the good intentions of the other person. As for the United States, politicians and voters from both parties should start talking to each other again. They should finally single out the most extreme, populist voices. They should remind themselves that, on the whole, there is still more that unites them than what divides them. They should recall those line of the famous gospel song “We Shall Overcome”, which became the unofficial anthem of the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s:

Oh, deep in my heart

I do believe

We shall overcome, some day.

Text: Christopher Riedl.

Illustration: Klara Knutsson.

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