Overcoming Political Polarization Must Start With the American Public

The following article was written by Erik as an op-ed submission to the Washington Post, in response to an article entitled "How America can reverse its downward political spiral in 2016." It was turned down, so I get to share it with you!

A specter is haunting America: our growing political polarization and dysfunction leaves many citizens wallowing in dismay, watching cable news and presidential polls with jaws agape. This reaction is not some false nostalgia nor doom-singing: things are worse than they have been in a long time. Party loyalty in Congress is absolute, and candidates race to the fringes to win the support of increasingly-radical primary voters.

Now is a very exciting time for the fringe elements, who have been tempered or ignored for decades by the bulk of their parties. But most Americans feel uninspired at best, and at worst are genuinely terrified of the future.

That the headline-making presidential candidates at either end of the political spectrum represent such small slivers of the American public--and there is ample evidence that this is true--suggests that the problem is in Washington itself. And indeed, it is very tempting to blame some or all of the 537 people we elect to the beltway. If only we had leaders who could really lead!

Such is the message of some of the (now retired) veterans of the "better days" of American politics. No Labels co-founders Jon Huntsman and Joe Lieberman implore politicians to be "problem solvers" and just commit to working together. Tom Daschle and Trent Lott, having written a timely book called Crisis Point, declared in a Dec 31 op-ed that political leaders must compromise, have dinner together, have vision, and (don't forget!) lead

Where do the American people fit into this? Daschle and Lott say that we need to "make a commitment to vote." Huntsman and Lieberman implore us to implore that our representatives really be problem-solvers.

It's frankly disconcerting that some of our most noble elder statesmen believe that cliches and weak platitudes are going to be what solves our political crisis. Simply demanding "better leaders" has been tried. It has failed, and there's no evidence that political dysfunction is linked to turnout rate. 

Sometimes good people run for office. We might dare say there is promising talent--with a history of leading across the aisle--running in both parties. They will lose this year.

The reason they will lose this year is because the culture of the United States body politic has become toxic. There are many structural drivers of this: One driver is how communication changes on the Internet, another is improved emotional "marketing" by candidates running for office.

The opinions of the loudest, angriest Americans are amplified. Other Americans believe that these loud, angry people make up a huge chunk of the opposition, and so these frightened citizens throw their lot in with the loudest, angriest parts of their own party, lest they lose to the monsters on the other side.

Politicians have learned that appealing to our emotions--particularly outrage, fear, and our tribal instincts—increases turnout, particularly in primary elections. Those who do this well, win. Those who wish to remain pure, who lead with a message of bipartisan cooperation and deliberation, lose. American voters have decided that the opposition are monsters: to work together with them would be a betrayal.

The way out of this crisis is long, and requires the steadfast and tireless dedication of millions of Americans. It can be said of weight loss that, “you did not grow fat overnight; you shall not lose that weight overnight.” Daschle, Lott, Hunstman, and Lieberman are promising a magical weight-loss pill, and such products sell well because those who are buying are desperate for a quick fix. But we know they don’t work. Entreating Americans to vote or to demand that their leaders be “problem solvers” is naïve problem-solving. When elder statesmen give such false solutions credibility, they become a dangerous distraction from the work we have to do.

The long road out of political dysfunction starts with ourselves. We each at times give in to the tribal, war-fighting rhetoric of our modern politics. We seek to defeat our opposition, rather than convince them that we’re right. We consume only information that confirms our biases, rather than challenging them. We “choose a side” in debates like abortion or gun control and silence our own, nuanced opinions on the matter, for fear of giving power to our monstrous opposition.

The first step in this long road is choosing to no longer participate in driving a wedge into our nation. Those who wish to end political dysfunction must leave echo-chamber war-camps and have real conversations with those who disagree with them. How can we expect our politicians to do so when we so steadfastly refuse? 

Hey new readers! This article is actually a taste of our book, WedgedIf you're intrigued by the ideas here, Wedged should sate your curiosity. 


Erik Fogg

We do politics, but we don't do the thinking for you.