Political parties may as well be rival high schools

The growing issue of political polarization


Priya Harry / Talon

In George Washington’s Farewell Address, he famously gave the United States two warnings: do not get involved with the affairs of other countries and resist the rise of political factions.

Washington didn’t have a word for his fears, but based on the context given in the 7,641-word address, it’s clear he was worried we would become so divided we would be incapable of unifying under the term American. 

Spoiler alert, he was absolutely right. Now, 227 years later, there is a term for it: political polarization.

Psychology professors Gordon Heltzel and Kristin Laurin define political polarization as “when subsets of a population adopt increasingly dissimilar attitudes toward parties and party members (i.e., affective polarization), as well as ideologies and policies (ideological polarization).”

In other words, political polarization is when people view members of other parties not as living, breathing human beings, but as an enemy with immoral and unethical opinions that may have devastating consequences for society. 

Pew Research Center published a study in 2014 providing statistics on political polarization in order to assess the validity and intensity of the issue. In both the 1994 and 2004 surveys, 49% fell under mixed political views, and in 2014 that number shrank to 39% .

Leaning towards one side more than the other isn’t necessarily a bad thing. At their core, the terms conservative and liberal are simple, and there’s nothing inherently wrong with them.

By definition, conservative means “tending or disposed to maintain existing views, conditions, or institutions,” and liberal means “one who is open-minded or not strict in the observance of orthodox, traditional, or established forms or ways.”

Being conservative or liberal simply means valuing tradition or being open to change. Take common values like family and culture. The importance of family is a conservative value. It has existed for thousands of years in practically every culture. Honoring your culture is conservative because culture is something that, by definition, precedes you.

Similarly, desiring a change in any system at any time is a liberal opinion. It doesn’t matter what you want to change, it’s that wanting change makes your opinion liberal.

Take a dicey topic like abortion, for example. Terms like pro-life and pro-choice, even though they are commonly associated with political parties, neither those terms nor the parties themselves are directly linked to the values of conservative or liberal.

Parties have been fluctuating across the political spectrum as long as the United States has existed. During the 1860s Republicans were the ones who voted to abolish slavery, because at the time Republicans had a more liberal outlook while Democrats were conservative.

If you think the system is fine as is, that’s conservative. If you think the system needs to change, whether that’s banning abortion or making it available nationwide, that is liberal.

The truth is that many don’t fall into one specific ideology. People have different outlooks on different things based on their values and personal life experiences. Having an outlook like that on life is perfectly normal and healthy.

An unhealthy approach is if you start consistently aligning yourself with one belief across the board. Then it becomesa slippery slope toward extremism which, based on historical precedent, can end poorly. Take the rise of fascism in Nazi Germany or communism in the USSR as an example. Both are well-known examples of extremism in the past.

So of course not only have people become more aligned with one specific ideology, which isn’t uncommon, but they’re also aligning themselves across the board. As the graph above shows, the number of people who associate themselves with one political party grew substantially between 1994 and 2014, revealing that, on both sides of the political spectrum, people are adopting an almost herd-like mentality.

Herd mentality, or the bandwagon effect, is a psychological phenomenon when people do things simply because others are doing them. Recently people have been attributing this to social media. When you make activism and politics a hobby, it’s easier to view yourself as being on a team and thus align yourself with the team’s ideologies.

The Pew Research Center study also assessed the possibility of people living in an echo chamber, which is the idea that people only associate themselves with those who hold similar beliefs and seek out information that confirms those beliefs.

Lo and behold that 49% of consistent liberals and 63% of consistent conservatives said most of their friends share the same political views. Not only is there an issue with the people they associate with, but also with the news they consume. 

Seventy-three percent of consistent liberals deemed Fox News an unfavorable news source, and 71% of consistent conservatives deemed MSNBC unfavorable.

People are shifting away from a center outlook and instead choosing to firmly align themselves with one political party, simultaneously not interacting with people or news outlets that share different views.

They live in a state of mind where they are unable or unwilling to see the other side as not the other side but as living, breathing human beings.

The only way to avoid this mindset is to force yourself out of this echo chamber you may subconsciously be creating.

Initiate a conversation with someone you know you disagree with. Listen to them and try to understand their point of view. Think about the logic behind their argument.

If you’re unable to do that, watch a news channel you hate. Observe topics and incidents by reading coverage from both sides of the spectrum. It’s no secret that many news sources possess biases. So go to both sides because the truth is usually somewhere in the middle.