Overcoming the Blindness that Is Disabling Our Politics and Impairing our Society

David Blankenhorn, Deseret News, 10/12/2015

A blindness is disabling our politics and impairing our society. Every day it's making us angrier with one another and putting us collectively more and more in the dark, where we can't see each other clearly. The name of that blindness is polarization.

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Subjects: By IAV Leaders and Staff, Polarization

More by: David Blankenhorn

A blindness is disabling our politics and impairing our society. Every day it's making us angrier with one another and putting us collectively more and more in the dark, where we can't see each other clearly. The name of that blindness is polarization.

Don't imagine that polarization is the same as disagreement. In a free society such as ours, citizens naturally have diverse and strongly held views on big political issues – that's normal, and that's not what's blinding us. A polarized society is one in which these disagreements are distorted by underlying rancor, ill will and fear. We're not simply disagreeing more, we're also becoming more intensely disagreeable – more emotionally wrought up over political differences and increasingly convinced that people in the other political camp are not only misguided, but are also bad, stupid or selfish people. People whose ideas are so wrong and crazy that we literally can't understand how normal people could believe such things. People who are veering so far off the rails that they must represent some kind of dark and hidden agenda that dare not speak its name.

Surveys show that growing numbers from both political parties currently go so far as to view the other party as "a threat to the nation's well-being." With polarization, the political is personal. Compared to earlier decades, Americans today are far more likely to say they would be unhappy if they had a child who married a member of the other party.

The strange fruits of this blindness are all around us. Less trust in our political institutions and in each other. Less empathy. More separation. More inequality. More anger. Poorer thinking. Dumber public conversation. Stuck politics. Policy gridlock. It adds up to the diminishment of civic capacity. The blindness of polarization is increasingly harming our ability to be good family members, good neighbors and good citizens.

Why is polarization a form of blindness? Because it's the intellectual equivalent of looking in a fun-house mirror while believing that you are looking in a regular mirror. Or to use a slightly different analogy, it's like trying to see in a room that keeps getting darker.

The results are distortions stemming from confusion. A polarized thinker believes that something partially unreal, an exaggeration of reality, is real. "My adversary is wrong" becomes "My adversary is evil." "My agenda is best" becomes "The only alternative to my agenda is a deal with the devil." "This I oppose" becomes "This I won't tolerate."

Like all forms of distorted thinking – for example, believing that I am the center of the universe, or that my racial group is superior to all others – polarized thinking weakens our intellects and makes actual (as opposed to phony) disagreement with political opponents harder to resolve. That some smart people today are also polarized thinkers does not change the fact that, for both individuals and society, polarized thinking is ultimately an intellectual deficiency, akin to a handicap.

That's why, even if we didn't exactly think our way into this mess – we didn't all get together one day and say, "Let's polarize and here's how" – we must now try to think our way out. Our main problem is us, and it's in our heads.

Many leaders worried about polarization seem to view it mainly as a problem of politicians behaving badly. We want them to be more civil, try harder to find common ground, work together across party lines and be more willing to compromise. As a result, most current proposals aimed at reducing polarization focus on how we elect these officials and how we want them to treat one another once in office. These proposals for reform include congressional redistricting, open primaries, mandatory voting, campaign finance reform, the return of the seniority system in Congress, Washington, D.C.-based initiatives to promote bipartisanship, and new media practices and regulations.

These are worthy and important recommendations. Yet why would we as a society endorse or demand the implementation of any of them, so long as our underlying ways of thinking about public life remain so dominated by the logic and habits of polarization? Even if depolarization must ultimately be reflected in institutional changes, these changes themselves appear to be largely at the mercy of deeper changes in the way we collectively think. If this is so, then probably our first and primary task, if we truly wish to depolarize, is to find ways to think anew, together, about each other.

That's why I'm part of a new initiative called "Better Angels." Our goal is to help millions of Americans work for depolarization in their networks and communities. Over the next 10 years, we want to leave a lasting mark on American government and society in favor of non-polarizing principles and practices. You can learn more about "Better Angels" at http://www.betterangelsinitiative.org

David Blankenhorn is president of the Institute for American Values. You can follow him on Twitter @Blankenhorn3.

This article originally appeared here.


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