Polarization Dynamics and a Passion for Inclusion
by Tom Atlee - July 2004
see also Polarization
Anyone interested in the subject of polarization in the U.S. should
read the series of articles on "the great divide", issued
by the Austin American-Statesman <http://www.statesman.com/greatdivide>.
These articles by Bill Bishop describe HOW political polarization
in the U.S. has been increasing since 1976. Bishop gives us a sense
of that polarization by looking at counties where one party got
at least 60 percent of the presidential election vote. In 1976 only
27 percent of U.S. citizens lived in such polarized counties. That
means that thirty years ago, two out of every three U.S. counties
had a fair balance between Republicans and Democrats. However, by
2000 the number of polarized counties had doubled to 45 percent.
The figure is undoubtedly higher today, and is reflected in the
red and blue states and counties so often referred by commentators.
(Interestingly, during this same time, U.S. counties have been becoming
more racially integrated.) What's happening here?
Although many of us realize that this growing polarization is being
fed by carefully crafted media blitzes and spin (see for example,
David Brock’s book Blinded by the Right), it turns
out that there is much more going on than planned manipulations.
And all of it offers great lessons in system dynamics and feedback
One of the most powerful factors is apparently our technologically
empowered passion for fellowship, agreement and comfort. As we become
more mobile and information becomes more available, we are increasingly
moving into communities populated by others who share our lifestyle,
including our political inclinations. Conservatives are increasingly
surrounded by conservatives and liberals by liberals, to a point
where we can easily say, for example, "I don't know anyone
who is for (or against) the Iraq war." Furthermore, most of
us on all sides are customizing our information sources to speak
to our existing databases, ideologies and prejudices, until our
views make such powerful sense to us that we end up seeing all contrary
perspectives as extremely misguided if not evil or insane. This
ideological insulation feeds back into itself, reinforces itself,
and feeds the emergence of ever-more extreme views on all sides.
Consider this feedback loop: In a somewhat homogenous community,
people hear arguments for (or against) President Bush, for example,
repeated over and over, in a thousand different ways. New and different
arguments get created, further strengthening people's sense of righteous
confidence. Manipulative propaganda then feeds on this sea of agreement
and pumps it up emotionally. We find subtle competition beginning
within groups, as people try to gain favor by being (or at least
appearing) slightly more conservative (or liberal) than their ideological
fellows -- which further divides the whole political culture collectively
towards the extremes. As this Balkanized atmosphere of conformity
grows, people with different or more moderate ideas increasingly
remain silent. University of Maryland political demographer James
Gimpel notes that "There is no opportunity in those [homogenous]
counties or neighborhoods for dissonance to arise. And so by keeping
dissonance out, you wind up gravitating toward a more extreme political
position. This is one explanaton for the increase in ideology you
see not only in the public, but in Congress."
University of Chigago law professor Cass Sunstein notes how increasingly
people "see their fellow citizens as confused or vicious, as
not fully members of the same community, and that can make discussions
and mutual understanding difficult... Some communities think extremely
unfair things about the other side."
These trends beef up the polarizing dynamics of partisan politics
-- and are, themselves, enhanced by partisan redistricting and narrowly
targeted political messages that caricature the other side to rouse
the faithful. Journalist Bill Bishop notes: "As counties become
more politically pure, they push their representatives in state
legislatures and Congress to more extreme positions. Legislative
compromise becomes almost impossible. Meanwhile, election campaigns
become less interested in convincing a dwindling number of undecided
voters and more concerned with whipping up the enthusiasm of their
most partisan backers" so they'll come out and vote. Ohio State
university political psychologist Jon Krosnick notes that turnout
is highest when voters "like one candidate and hate another."
In the end, notes Bishop, "Homogenous communities gerrymandered
into homogeous districts produce more extreme and uncompromising
These electoral dynamics mean that "the newest members of
Congress on average will be more partisan and extreme than the people
they replaced. Over time, these shifts change not only the way Congress
works, but who runs for office." At all levels of governance,
anyone with civility and concern for the common good rapidly becomes
overwhelmed by the bitter incivility and stereotyping of the modern
political game and drops out. Civic-minded new politicians become
disgusted by the destructive campaigns they have to run to be nominated
and elected. "People thought of by their peers as good leaders
stay away from both Democratic and Republican contests."
Erick Schickler, a Harvard University political scientist, notes
that a healthy democracy is served by people recognizing that "your
enemy on one issue may be your ally on another issue, and that makes
for stability and keeps conflict more cordial and restrained."
The new polarization makes that rational civility increasingly difficult
for everyone involved.
"One of the ironies of democracy is that citizens who see
both sides of an issue are less likely to vote and become politically
active than those people who are angry, partisan and unsympathetic
to those who think differently." Therefore, the way politics
is going, the very people and messages most likely to serve the
common good are being marginalized. The extreme partisans that remain
in the game won't talk to each other. In a complementary irony,
"new ethics laws and press attention to congressional junkets
have reduced the opportunities for legislators to form friendships
beyond party and ideology." Efforts to undermine the "old
boys club" have created legislators who don't like each other
at all, don't relax together, and will do anything to undermine
Our adversarial political culture is moving further and further
out of a stable state into an unsustainable, increasingly chaotic
and internally dysfunctional state. A system at such increasing
levels of chaos and dysfunctionality WILL find a new form of order
SOMEWHERE. Where will the new order come from?
Extremist or fascistic rule is one solution -- one side systematically
wiping out or suppressing the other side and any independent voices.
History offers ample examples of that approach, and how smoothly
and sometimes suddenly an otherwise normal-seeming society can slip
into its grip. This is the path of mutual degradation and collective
Another solution is dialogue -- high quality dialogue -- widespread
dialogues among all sorts of people, well-publicized dialogues among
selected groups of diverse partisans or citizens, official dialogues
among representatives or empowered citizens -- all kinds of dialogue.
Through this approach people can learn more about each other, about
themselves and about the realities and issues they face, and find
better solutions together. This is the path of mutual discovery
and collective intelligence.
Which will happen here? Remember: "One of the ironies of democracy
is that citizens who see both sides of an issue are less likely
to vote and become politically active than those people who are
angry, partisan and unsympathetic to those who think differently."
This fact does not bode well for our future.
Maybe what we need is some partisan passion about creating a political
system which actively encourages the involvement of "citizens
who see both sides of an issue," a system that sees treasure
in our powerful differences and that knows how to mine that treasure
through respect, dialogue, deliberation, and passionate co-creativity.
It is time for us to realize that "seeing both sides"
is not a bland, befuddled, middle-of-the-road position. It is our
next necessary step onto the leading edge of democracy's evolution.
It is a step out of partisanship and polarization into the Whole.
It is a required step if we are to find the necessary courage, wisdom
and dedication to midwife the birth of a culture that honors the
whole picture, the whole community, the whole world, the whole of
Seeing the multi-faceted, evolving nature of truth -- even in the
midst of political battles -- is our doorway to wholeness. And I
say -- with passion -- that that whole -- the ultimate inclusive
reality of life that embraces me and you and our erstwhile enemies
and everyone else -- deserves our passion even more than its partisan
That inclusive, co-intelligent passion is a passion worth growing
into -- together.
PS: If you'd like to share your own passion about this, consider
signing the Let's Talk America Petition at http://www.petitiononline.com/LTA2004/petition.html.
For more articles on Polarization, see
Home || What's
New || Search || Who
We Are || Co-Intelligence
|| Our Work || Projects
|| Contact || Don't
Miss || Articles || Topics
|| Books || Links
|| Subscribe || Take
Action || Donate || Legal
If you have comments about this site, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Contents copyright © 2004, all rights reserved, with generous
permissions policy (see Legal Notices)