On Hyperpolarization

Don’t argue with me by Flickr user ClaraDon

I was recently asked to respond to the question, “What trends have you been seeing in democracy?” I thought I might share my response more broadly.

One of the core experiences when it comes to democracy in the U.S. context is the effect of hyperpolarization. This is a pathology that goes beyond simple ”partisanship” (which in itself is not necessarily a bad thing). Hyperpolarization refers to the inability or refusal to consider other ”tribe’s” views as valid and to (at the same time) actively seek out tribal markers.

This plays out in the most obvious way in presidential-year politics. To a liberal, anything Romney says ought to be parsed so it can be seen as showing how anti-worker he is. Similarly, a conservative (under this model) will seek out reasons to find Obama to be a government-first softie.

But it matters beyond presidential electoral politics. In a hyperpolarized world, citizens on an individual level are constantly looking for cues to see what tribe people belong to. And, once the tribe is identified, we scour the person’s words and deeds for reasons to hate or love them. I have seen this play out on a local level, as people examine one another’s speech to determine if they are for or against a certain housing development (for example). Once the judgment is made, everything that person says is either agreed with and defended, or subject to ridicule and derision . . . entirely due to which ”tribe” or ”team” we believe them to be on.

This hyperpolarization stands in the way of productive choice-making in communities and is one of the key pathologies we currently face. (Not the only.)

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