How polarization kills democracy and truth

Across the west, ‘post-truth’ politics are on the rise, public support for and trust in democracy and scientific institutions is on the decline, and authoritarianism is starting to make a comeback. Most people agree that these trends are bad, but dispute who is responsible. My argument here is that the political polarization we are seeing these days is the cause, we are all responsible, and we all have a duty to set aside our differences and work together to fix it, before it’s too late.

When two political factions want different policies, there are logically only four possible ways their disagreement can be resolved: (1) one faction persuades the other that its policy is best, (2) the factions agree on a compromise, (3) there is a détente or paralysis causing no policy to be implemented, or (4) one side imposes its policy on the other by force. The less trust and the more hatred there is between factions, the less persuasion and compromise are possible, which means that you end up with a lot of paralysis and force. A paralyzed government is ineffectual and loses the public’s trust over time. A government by force–the last remaining option–is authoritarian. In the U.S., I fear we are currently transitioning from paralysis (and little public confidence in government) to authoritarianism.

The more polarized debates become, and the less compromising the party in power becomes, the higher the stakes are for factions when it comes to who is in power. Eventually, the stakes get high enough that factions are willing to suspend their democratic instincts, even if they support democracy as an ideal. So, polarization breeds authoritarianism, and authoritarianism breeds more authoritarianism.

Same goes for the ‘post truth’ world. There is a saying, often attributed to Senator Hiram W. Johnson in 1918, that goes “The first casualty when war comes is truth.” When two factions disagree, especially when the disagreements span multiple issues, the facts almost never completely line up with either faction’s perspective. Because polarization eventually leads to struggles for authoritarian power, winning eventually becomes more important to people than following the truth; loyalty becomes more important than honesty; and concessions to the other side become seen as weak or counterproductive rather than gracious or magnanimous. So if someone comes across a ‘fake news’ article supporting their faction’s viewpoint, it’s better to share it–and score some points against the other side–than to fact-check it.

When stated opinions become evaluated more as signals of tribal loyalty or disloyalty than as signals of knowledge or constructiveness, political factions erect taboos against sets of ideas perceived as potentially disloyal. For example, in conservative circles, it is often taboo to criticize business leaders (‘job-creators’), the free market’s ability to solve resource allocation problems, or Christian religious ideas or practices. In leftist circles, it is often taboo to suggest that stable families can be important in childrearing, that there are biological differences between the sexes, that nuclear power can be safe, that investing in carbon capture or climate adaptation might be realistic rather than defeatist or ‘lukewarmer’, or to criticize non-Christian (especially Islamic) religious ideas or practices. In all of these cases, taboos hinder our ability to use reason and evidence to solve problems that most people of all political stripes agree are important–like building a just, prosperous, equitable, socially cohesive, and sustainable society.

So, polarization promotes taboos and loyalty signaling, both of which harm the processes of finding and disseminating facts, and eventually lead to the ‘post-truth’ politics we increasingly see today.

In a polarized and ‘post-truth’ world, we tend to give the microphones to people who are the best at signaling loyalty to their group and piety to its ideals. Those with intellectual ideals and integrity stand aside out of fear of being targeted for violating taboos. So, for example*, we see discourse on the political right being increasingly dominated by ideas from the Tea Party, the alt-right and Christian fundamentalists, which are sometimes overtly homophobic, racist, misogynist, Islamophobic, or anti-Semitic; we see discourses on the left being increasingly dominated by ideas from so-called ‘social justice warriors’ (SJWs) that are sometimes overtly misandrist, racially or ethnically nationalist, or anti-Semitic. The fact that political polarization in the west seems to be dividing people by race, gender, ethnicity, and religion is striking and alarming, but not really surprising given the global history of tribal conflict. The fact that anti-Semitism is prominent on both sides is also worth noting, because it likely contributes to the fact that Jews are, per-capita, the second-most frequent targets of hate crimes in the U.S. and in Canada (after LGBT people), and it likely also contributes to the fact that few people have seemed to notice this.

In a polarized world where power struggles are becoming higher-stakes and more absolute, we want the strongest, most ruthless competitor leading our side. The humble and meek stand aside or else they are crushed. We end up supporting political leaders like Hitler, Stalin, Mao, Putin, Castro, Chavez, Erdogan, Duterte, or, of course, Trump, to name a few. Notice how these types of leaders can come from either the right or the left.

So, fellow concerned citizens, I beg you: Please realize how fragile and precious democracy is, and how much worse things could get if we let them. Please find it in your hearts to set aside your differences and support a new kind of social and political leadership, one that is organized around principles of truth-seeking and bridge-building. We badly need this kind of leadership on all sides of the political spectrum.

What does this specifically mean? To name a few resources: The Atlantic has a good feature on possible strategies for breaking down polarization at the political level, has some great suggestions for breaking down polarization at the personal level, NYU’s Jon Haidt’s research outlines some of the challenges and opportunities at a personal level, and Harvard’s Yascha Mounk offers some good suggestions related to the Trump administration specifically (and I encourage you to check out his other work on this topic too.) If any of you know of other good resources, please post them in the comments.

Much love to all, across the political spectrum, in these turbulent times. Though it doesn’t always seem like it from the news cycles, I know that most people who are engaged in politics are ultimately decent and just want what they think is best for their families, friends, and societies. And, despite everything that’s going on today, the world is still steadily–if slowly–getting better in many important respects.

*I have not included links here because I do not wish to provide an additional platform to any hateful rhetoric from either side of the political divide, but anyone who doesn’t agree with my characterizations of this rhetoric and would like to see examples of what I am referring to can email me at, and I will point you to some.

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