Much is being made about our "deeply divided nation" these days. I heard a radio talk show host yesterday declaring that we've been polarized into extremes, as he was espousing a more "balanced" position. But I know that Americans are not typically political extremists. So what gives? Well there is a lot of labelling of politicians as extremists going on. And as a result there's a lot of shrill talk on both sides about how dire the effects of the other guys being in power is/will be. But, while we may at times correctly note elements within our political system which are extreme, we miss the point if we think that the divisiveness is about extremism.
In fact Americans are mostly extreme about being against extremes, to the point that we avoid engaging in constructive dialog with people whose views we deem to be out of the "mainstream", whatever that means to us. In our history, as in many other nations today, persons of very disparate political beliefs coexisted side by side without so much stigma attached to their positions. Sure there were arguments, and stigmatizations going on, but in 1912, Eugene Debs, a socialist candidate for President garnered six percent of the national vote. Not much, but no one calling themselves a socialist could draw anything like that today. Italians familiar with our politics would just laugh if you asserted that the American political parties were drifting toward extremes. There you have virtual fascists and communists in the mix along with all the other parties, and politics is more fluid than it is here. I'm not suggesting that is better than here, just that extremes are accepted more matter of factly as part of the political fabric.
Yes we need balance, but balance comes not by everyone finding some perfect centrist position, but by people with different perspectives engaging in dialog and civil debate. Ideas should be considered for action without the conclusions being foregone because of who suggested them.
It's vitally important in a republic that thoughtful points of view be fairly represented in our governing process. According to The Political Compass I'm substantially to the left of center and anti-authoritarian, but I don't think of myself as an extremist, nor do I think that someone who, for example, ardently defends free market capitalism is an extremist. In fact I will declare that it would be quite unhealthy and unbalanced for only my positions to be represented in the body politic, and even that having my positions be centrist would not be ideal. My views are very much in earnest, and they do deserve a place in our political discourse, but so do the views of libertarians, conservatives, and communitarians in our society. Policy should derive from a synthesis of reasonable viewpoints, arrived at after reasoned discussion and consideration of the impact on all of us.
So if it is not extremism, what does account for the polarization that we seem to be seeing in America today? I'm not sure, but I suspect many factors contribute to it. One factor is the "if you're not with us, you're against us" mentality, which emanates from the administration itself. They may declare that was not meant to apply globally to all issues, but it's hard to imagine more divisive language. It encourages those who agree with your policy to vilify those who don't, and creates hardened resentment among those who disagree.
Another factor is the packaging of talking points by both sides in our political debates, which encourage people to accept a whole litany of positions as tied together in one bundle, when in fact reasonable people choose positions individually according to their own values and experience. While I don't believe most people actually buy one slate of positions to the exclusion of the other slate, there is a subtle muzzling that goes on, which discourages those within organizations to take exception to particular portions of their organization's platform. We may belong to groups whose purpose is to make waves within our society, but then ironically be timid about making waves within the group.
Also contributing is the fact that some of the polarization is more perceived than it is real. The simple fact that so many polls find the country split so close to 50/50 causes many to perceive that split as a polarization, when in fact the percentage of people on either side of an issue has nothing to do with polarization. Yes there are many on both sides who do feel polarized, but there are also many on both sides who do not.
Whatever the causes of our polarization, whether perceived or real, there is a yearning on the part of many to bring civility and reason to the fore, and to dispense with the name calling and vilification that has become so rampant. Of course ugliness has always been with us, and always will be, but our system of government with its checks and balances and legislative process still provides a framework to find common ground and enact policy in the public good if we can protect it from those who would subvert and corrupt it to bend to their narrow interests.