Culture Wars/Current Controversies

Polarization in America: two possible futures

What is most interesting about the “polarization” is that most of it is make-believe. The problem with US politics is not that “extremist” viewpoints have too much influence, but that access to the political system is very narrowly restricted to the parameter of opinions favorable to ruling class interests. The current election pits de facto Blue Dog Democrat Trump against de facto moderate Republican Biden, but the “left” and “right” act as though the candidates are Hitler and Stalin. Even most of the “culture war” issues amount to arguments over which set of table manners is preferable with the argument being waged between contending teams of cosplayers.

By Gordon Heltzel and Kristin Laurin

Current Opinion in Behavioral Science

The rise of polarization over the past 25 years has many Americans worried about the state of politics. This worry is understandable: up to a point, polarization can help democracies, but when it becomes too vast, such that entire swaths of the population refuse to consider each other’s views, this thwarts democratic methods for solving societal problems. Given widespread polarization in America, what lies ahead? We describe two possible futures, each based on different sets of theory and evidence. On one hand, polarization may be on a self-reinforcing upward trajectory fueled by misperception and avoidance; on the other hand it may have recently reached the apex of its pendulum swing. We conclude that it is too early to know which future we are approaching, but that our ability to address misperceptions may be one key factor.


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