A year ago, we began to see ourselves live through history every day. We found ourselves apart from our families and friends, amidst a renewed wave of social activism, and in the middle of a difficult time for everyone involved. Since the beginning of the pandemic, we’ve seen everyday heroes give us hope and have found greatness within ourselves. Yet, we also live in a polarized world. With the advent of the information age in the past 30 years, our computers and phones have come to shape so many aspects of our lives. We couldn’t have gotten through COVID without them, but we have to be careful that they don’t destroy us in the process.
Today, the state of our politics is polarized, meaning that ideological beliefs are becoming more aligned to parties regardless of the issue. These forms of division are not a new phenomenon, for our history is full of trends meant to separate us from one another. George Washington even warned of the dangers of polarization at this extreme. As the state of our politics today seems to grow closer to Washington’s warning, it is testing the strength of our democracy as a result.
The creation of many institutional safeguards, like separation of powers and checks and balances, lies in the concept of protection from tyranny in any form. Basically, regardless of if their intentions were pure, the founders knew that in order to have a lasting government, one needed consent and the ability to balance power. To ensure the most freedom for the most people (yes, at the time, this did not include anyone of a different race or women), a government needed to protect against one group overtaking and suppressing the rights of others. In Federalist #10, one of the essays used to persuade states to ratify the Constitution, James Madison explains that factions like these form because people have similar thoughts. He explained that if the founders had sought to eliminate them, it would suppress the freedoms of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness that the Declaration of Independence idealizes. Therefore, they created a large republic style of government that allows these factions to express their views through their representatives. This is a significant part of the argument for why we have three branches of government as well. The liberties that we, as citizens hold dear in the Bill of Rights and beyond were first lobbied for out of a fear that a federal government would become too powerful. I know it might sound confusing, but the founders knew that freedom would create disagreement. With each protection in place, they ultimately attempted to create a system that could use disagreement to a greater advantage.
Much of the issue today is that in our globalized world, our political beliefs have often become our ways of life. Now, we live in a democracy that allows and requires us to participate in how we are governed, but research shows that we tend to associate ourselves more with people who believe as we do. There is nothing wrong with this in theory, yet the reaffirmations of our beliefs influence our tastes, preferences and ultimately, our social identity. Social media is not the only cause of this; there are direct political structures and historical causations as well. All of these elements combined have created a political environment of antagonism and judgement. The horrifying extremes of this environment were exemplified on January 6th.
It is important to remember, though, in our interconnected world that very few things happen in isolation. This is not something that has just occurred nor something that will just naturally disappear. We each have our convictions, but when we alienate ourselves from one another in this way, even implicitly, we deprive ourselves of the ability to have real and deep conversations about our differences. We deprive ourselves of the ability to find humanity within and grow from them. With that said, there is a significant line between having a viewpoint different from someone and having a viewpoint that strips away another’s dignity or dehumanizes them. This is never okay and it should not be stood for. However, this notion that those who have differing views than our own as “bad” is a normative one. We are a percolation of experiences, and confining ourselves to only interacting with those we agree with can leave out a chance for more sustained progress. We can only come to understand one another by talking to each other.
As a large portion of Americans hold mixed views, this type of polarization leaves them isolated, which is part of why swing voters are so important to elections. Furthermore, there is evidence that government efficiency decreases when party lines increase. For example, as parties shifted from 1947-2014, there was a general downward trend in legislation passed during each session of Congress. That is not to say that nothing gets accomplished in polarized times. Supreme Court cases like Brown v. The Board of Education (1954), which mandated desegregation of schools, was passed at a moment much like this. A number of other major decisions and legislation were passed when tensions were also high. What polarization is good at doing is calling into question the status quo, which we need to do, but it is when these tensions boil over, however, that we find ourselves in trouble.
So what do we do? Well there are a number of structural changes that could mitigate these issues at a government level. While we should be lobbying those in power for these, there are also things we can do as citizens, right now, to target the issue at its root- our identities. We live in a democracy based around our consent, and we have the necessity to stand up for change and participate. It is going to take each of us. We need to ask ourselves what we really believe in and what we have been told to believe in. We need to reflect on where we get our media and information from, and we need to hold ourselves and our officials accountable. Write to your officials whether you agree with them or not. Be an informed voter when you go to the polls. Participate in democracy in all the ways that you can. But, beyond that, be willing to talk and to listen, unafraid to have the difficult conversations because when we do so, we build empathy. Yes, it sounds idealistic, but unless we address the root of the issues, we will continue to fall into the same cycle.
Until we learn to treat each other with humanity, until every citizen is treated as a citizen, we can not truly be a beacon of light. If the past year taught us anything it is that there is hope for a better community, nation and world. It is not an overnight nor perfect process, but we can get there. If Amanda Gorman’s inaugural poem, or even Hamiliton the Musical, taught us anything, it is that hope exists if we are willing to put in an active and persistent effort to go find it.