Exploring the Dynamics of Polarization
by Tom Atlee - July 2004
see also Polarization
How do we encounter people whom we see as significantly different
from us? Do we see them as stereotypes or as unique individuals?
Do we treat them as threats or as fellows?
Treating each other respectfully is the basic idea behind calls
for "civility" and the new dignitarian
movement. Treating each other respectfully and with an open
mind and heart not only allows us all to feel welcome in the world
we share, but allows us to find more comprehensive truths together
by understanding the puzzle-pieces each of us holds so we can discover
a bigger, richer picture than each of us originally saw.
Polarization makes it hard to do that. Polarization is "the
increasing concentration of groups, forces or interests around two
conflicting or contrasting positions" -- Us and Them, the right
way and the wrong way. One of the most fundamental ways of framing
political polarization is "Left vs. Right." For explorations
of the history and diverse meanings of the terms "Left"
and "Right," see
the Wikipedia essay on the topic (and two
related Wikipedia articles). These terms are designed to organize
forces for political battle more than for greater human understanding.
If we wish to reduce polarization, it is vital that we separate
people -- ourselves and others -- from the ideologies and positions
we've all gotten attached to, so that we can come together as fellow
citizens to figure out the relative truth and usefulness of various
ideas and options. To do this, we need to see ourselves as citizens
and people first, and partisans second.
This is not to say that things don't look different to each of
us. They do. But those differences can be assets if we can learn
to see our diverse views as resources instead of sides of a battle,
and notice that we simultaneously share a lot of common ground.
If we open our eyes and look carefully, we will likely find that
on any given issue, a different group of people agree with us. That
is as it should be: It reminds us that the issues are defined more
by individual viewpoints than by the Left and Right conglomerates
of positions. Each individual viewpoint has gifts and limitations
worthy of exploration -- all of which can be grist for the mill
of our collective deliberation (our collective intelligence) as
we discover and develop more inclusive perspectives and options
we all find truer and more useful than what we started out with.
To the extent we can free ourselves from the polarized prisons
of Left and Right, we will have more creatively productive deliberations.
The reverse is true as well: To the extent we have well-designed
and well-run deliberations which help us use our differences creatively
in light of our common ground, we will free ourselves from those
polarized prisons of Left and Right and discover the power of our
uniqueness and our shared creativity.
But most of us seldom experience such remarkable conversations.
More often than not, we are trapped in -- and blinded by -- this
manipulated narrative called "Left vs. Right" that's designed
to make us feel like heroes in an epic of Good vs. Evil. It keeps
us from seeing each other, from recognizing potential allies, from
talking with each other or treating each other like the decent human
beings most of us are. Most importantly, it keeps us from coming
together to free our minds and hearts to create a society and world
that work for all.
To an outsider, people battling from the Left and the Right look
like two people fighting in a dangerously rocking rowboat. When
the boat runs into a snag and sprouts a leak in one side, the person
on the other side yells, "Look, there's a hole in your side
of the boat! Ha! Now you'll sink!" and keeps on fighting, convinced
victory is at hand. But from outside, this allegedly win/lose game
looks more like a lose/lose game, especially in the long run.
Let's dissect this Left/Right worldview and note well its many
ARE THESE CATEGORIES OF "LEFT" AND "RIGHT" --
LIBERAL AND CONSERVATIVE -- AS CLEARCUT AS THEY SEEM?
If we only consider the broad generalized outlines, we can note
true differences between liberals and conservatives, just as we
can describe differences between Californians and Minnesotans, whites
and blacks, Christians and Jews. But these differences pale in comparison
to the similarities and common interests of both groups -- to say
nothing of the vast diversity we find WITHIN each group and the
number of people who fall outside either one. Polarization begins
as we lose sight of these mind-expanding facts and believe the groups
are homogenous, mutually exclusive, and dedicated to good (or evil).
In reality they are far from homogenous. Most conservatives are
not rich, and most liberals are not blue collar union men. Most
liberals are neither less rational nor more empathic than the average
conservative. There are racists, xenophobes and culturally sensitive
people on both sides. Many liberals are pro-Life. Many conservatives
are pro-Choice. Individual corporations often fund the campaigns
of both liberal and conservative politicians simultaneously, while
many politicians in both categories have huge grassroots networks
supporting them. The ACLU and the American Conservative Union (ACU)
are working together against the Patriot Act. Aging hippy parents
work with Christian fundamentalists to maintain educational policies
friendly to home schooling. Pat Buchanan joins with Ralph Nader
attacking NAFTA and GATT. Certain people from both the Left and
the Right fight for decentralization of power and empowered communities.
At the same time, certain other people from both the Left and the
Right fight for greater respect for authority and greater powers
for the Federal Government. Conservative US Senator Orrin Hatch
and liberal US Senator Ron Wyden cosponsored a bill to base US health
care policy on the outcomes of widespread public deliberations.
People from both sides make war and protect the environment. These
are only a few examples of the vast diversity within each worldview
and vast common ground among members of every "side" --
realities that become hidden as polarization heats up.
The Wikipedia article cited above notes that Left and Right parties
tend to "find it expedient to adopt opposing sides." In
this strategic polarization, the Left and the Right claim for themselves
certain archetypal polar values. But most Americans (and many other
people across the political spectrum) value BOTH of those supposed
polar opposites. Most people want order AND freedom, individual
rights AND social justice; policies that are rational AND compassionate,
realistic AND idealistic; a healthy economy AND a healthy environment;
strong families AND a strong society; individual success AND the
common good. They believe individuals should be responsible AND
they believe social policies and programs can support or undermine
people's chances AND they believe disadvantaged people should not
be neglected. They don't believe we should have to choose between
national security, on the one hand, and peace and liberty on the
other. People of all persuasions suspect concentrations of power
and wealth, but they don't want to stifle entrepreneurial creativity
with too much regulation. They think soldiers should be respected,
but so should protesters. They feel a strong sense of patriotism,
but don't want America to be an empire dominating the world. And
most have serious concerns about the state of American democracy.
Any reasonably open-minded examination will find vast common ground
across the lines of division we have painted between us.
It isn't that there's no difference between Left and Right. It's
just that reality is more complex than that oversimplified spectrum
makes us believe. As the Lets
Talk America program motto suggests: "What if what unites
us is more than we realize… and what divides us is less than
HOW THE DARK SIDE OF POLARIZATION REPRODUCES ITSELF
Our polarized failure to see the nuanced, complex reality about
our collective beliefs and kinship is seriously impeding our ability
to meet the challenges of the 21st Century -- and degrading our
humanity at the same time.
- It tricks us into dehumanizing the other side -- ignoring their
individual uniqueness, their diversity, their humanity, their
resources, their potential fellowship toward shared goals.
- It breaks connections between us as citizens and members of
our communities, causing a loss of what some sociologists call
"social capital" -- the networks of relationship through
which we get the non-governmental, non-profit work of our society
- It teaches us that we can't disagree civilly -- that we can't
respectfully "agree to disagree." This reduces our ability
to collaborate and, in particular, to engage in creative dialogues
with each other in which we could together move beyond false choices
and find solutions that embrace both freedom and security, a healthy
economy and a healthy environment, and all the other supposed
- It gets us to ignore information, insights, and solutions from
the other side, feeding our sloppy thinking and depriving us of
the knowledge we need to understand the full reality we face when
wrestling with social and environmental issues. By feeding our
mutual ignorance, it undermines our society's ability to reach
high quality decisions, solutions and initiatives.
- It supports people and systems that benefit from our alienation
from our fellows -- people and systems that seek to manipulate
us all -- dividing and conquering our communities and our nation
for the power and profit of the few.
- It supports the ugly side of us all -- the righteously hateful,
narrow-minded side that, under the right conditions -- with the
wrong leaders -- produces the kind of civil war and genocide we
saw in Sarajevo and Rwanda.
- Through all these alienating dynamics, polarization reinforces
itself. It reinforces a "you are either with us or against
us" attitude that silences, alienates and depopulates the
"middle" or "center" of our political life.
On both sides, this strengthens the hard-liners at the expense
of moderates -- leaving only the extremes active. To the extent
we buy into the false spectrum of Left and Right, our leaders
can manipulate us into not relating to people on the other side
at all, so that we soon know so little about them that we will
believe ANYTHING about them. Those of us who try to bridge the
gap will find the challenge overwhelming, both within ourselves
and from the feedback from our fellows. Polarization begets greater
- The extreme of polarization is genocide and civil war. Once
genocide begins, participants have an increasing psychological
need to sustain the polarized logic to make sense of their own
side's increasingly unethical behaviors in the face of their increasingly
dehumanized opponents. ("After all, THEY are monsters.")
When the genocidal period comes to a close, collective denial
may allow a haunted return to normal. But that leaves kindling
in place for the next spark. Only deep efforts to clarify, understand
and forgive can prevent a re-emergence of the polarized logic.
No society is immune to this collective insanity, unless it works
to dissolve polarization early, with high quality dialogue.
- In summary, polarization undermines our collective resilience
and tears us apart. Ultimately, it weakens us as communities and
societies so that we are more vulnerable to stresses and pressures
from the outside, more subject to stresses and fissures on the
inside, less able to respond together creatively to the challenges
and opportunities we face. As Abraham Lincoln so wisely pointed
out, "A house divided against itself cannot stand."
We can help keep our house united by recognizing all the different
parts that serve to make it functional, strong and interesting.
THE DYNAMICS OF POLARIZATION IN A MAJORITARIAN DEMOCRACY
One of my saddest realizations in researching polarization was
that majoritarianism, itself -- one of the fundamental principles
of republican democracy -- is an engine of polarization.
Although majority rule is a giant step beyond dictatorship, it
has several dangerous side-effects. The U.S. founding fathers recognized
and addressed one of them -- the power of majorities to oppress
minorities. They attempted to handle that by limiting concentrated
governmental power and protected the rights of states, individuals
and associations. That at least provided tools for later generations
to continually address the problem.
Unfortunately, the founders of the U.S. did not also set things
up to limit the tendency of majoritarianism to split the "house"
of democracy in two. Here's how it works:
- In a majoritarian democracy a proposal wins or someone is considered
legitimately elected if they get over 50% of the votes. It is
harder to get over 50% in a field of three or more options than
in a field with only two options. So in an effort to get over
50% people gather primarily into two parties. To solidify the
power of those parties, partisans voluntarily or forcefully suppress
complexity and diversity (the full range of information, perspectives,
options, etc.) so there always seem to be only two opposing alternatives
for everyone to rally around. (This suppression of diversity and
shades of disagreement can be reversed through processes like
the Public Conversation
Project, where participants are encouraged to voice their
individual shades of difference with the official "party
line" they've needed to espouse for the sake of political
- Partisan leaders invoke archetypal energies for the battle
they are waging by making the opposite side seem wrong, stupid,
insane or even evil. The other side is painted as powerful and
united -- so that "we" must be (or at least SEEM to
be) just as powerful and united. Therefore, no public dissent
among us is allowed (regardless of the actual diversity among
- At first these dynamics increase the APPARENT (though not real)
homogeneity of each side. But this APPARENT uniformity evolves
into ACTUAL uniformity by decreasing the exposure of each side
to the arguments and people on the other side. That decreases
the ACTUAL diversity of opinion on each side, since each is becoming
more righteously closed-minded and conformist about their own
perspective and ignorant of the other's. Gregory Bateson calls
this "schismogenesis" -- the systemic co-creation of
- As the apparent extremism of each side increases, the other
side is able to paint itself as moderate in the face of the other's
- The more extreme each side's views get, the more they think
that the media, government, academia, etc., are controlled by
the other side -- which, in turn, feeds even more extreme views
and actions, in an effort to have some impact on the monolith
partisans think they face. (In many cases we might more accurately
view these institutions as controlled by interests that aren't
on the political spectrum, per se, but who use ideological conflict
to manipulate populations or the policy apparatus for non-ideological
power and profit.)
In summary, whatever reality Left and Right have gets solidified
into dangerous polarization by our majoritarian system and those
who benefit from our mutual isolation. Polarization grows through
"reinforcing feedback dynamics" that work like this: partisan
solidarity reduces mutual understanding, which makes it easier for
partisans to stereotype each other, which makes people not want
to reach across the divides, which leads to no contact and fear
of the other side, which strengthens partisan solidarity, etc. The
cycle repeats, generating more and more alienation.
MOVING BEYOND THE LEFT/RIGHT TRANCE
The solution to all this is not to set aside all our differences.
The solution is to sort out our real individual differences from
the artificial, overly generalized dichotomies of polarization --
and then to bring those real differences into respectful, creative
dialogue that honors our common ground and seeks mutual benefit
and the common good.
The Left/Right frame of reference muddies our understanding of
the actual diversity of our viewpoints and our full range of options.
It supports sloppy thinking that messes up truly useful distinctions
that we could all learn from. Furthermore, the Left/Right frame
of reference interferes with productive inquiry by motivating us
to assert, attack and defend positions rather than share in exploration.
It impedes our ability to show up in our full uniqueness and diversity,
ready to engage with each other creatively in search of larger truths.
It acts as if there are only two views/options/perspectives and
that each of us is fully aligned with one of them. This is a self-reinforcing,
We can break out of this Left/Right trance. We can free ourselves
from culturally reinforced broad generalizations about how whole
masses of the population feel about whole bundles of issues. We
can talk to each other, read each other's information, actively
explore for allies "on the other side", and learn to become
more nuanced (or be able to talk in less black-and-white terms)
about our own views.
We can support bridge-building conversations and public dialogues
about specific issues, which expose citizens from across the political
spectrum to other people, information and ideas in contexts where
they can expand their thinking, build relationships, and move ahead
together towards positive social change.
A number of current initiatives are described and linked on the
National Coalition for Dialogue and Deliberation webpage The
De-Polarization of America: Major Dialogue- and Deliberation-Related
Efforts That Are Bridging the Partisan Divide. These include:
The September Project, Let's Talk America, PBS Deliberation Day,
Calling the Question, and the "We the People" National
None of this means we should stop our currently partisan work for
the world. There is no reason we can't do it all. That is, we can
- fight for our respective sides;
- honor the right of (and need for) all views to be heard;
- publicly acknowledge how our addiction to partisanship limits
- create opportunities, activities and institutions that support
our ability to move beyond "sides" and "positions"
to explore the whole picture together, considering each view as
a piece of the picture puzzle we're all trying to put together.
To the extent we succeed in building a powerful culture of dialogue
and deliberation (4), we will probably feel less need to fight each
other as partisans (1). We will wake up, more and more, to the fact
that we are all in this together. We will learn, step by step, how
to generate the collective wisdom, will and action needed to create
a decent world together where our children can all live well together
for endless generations to come.
May we find such wisdom to pass on to them, that they can build
on and pass on to their children.
interesting political spectra and models
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