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Part 4 in the Democracy in Distress series about the five key threats to American democracy and what you can do about them today.

Threat 4: Uncivil discourse

It might be wise to reflect on the two most dangerous words in the human vocabulary: “us” and “them.” 

~ Madeleine Albright

The U.S. history of polarized periods

Despite its seemingly recent evolution, divisiveness has occurred in the United States throughout our history, punctuated by heightened tension and polarization. If you paid attention in history class, you’ll remember one of our nation’s most divisive eras took place in the mid-1800s. Tensions between Federalists and Anti-Federalists over issues like states’ rights, slavery, and economic policies were marked by increasing contention. This ultimately led to the U.S. Civil War, which lasted four years and killed 620,000 Americans.

Many didn’t just learn about the Civil Rights Era of the 1950s and 1960s, but lived through it, participating protests and watching news of demonstrations meant to bring light deep to societal divisions, especially racial segregation and inequality. This era witnessed significant social and political unrest. The tragic deaths of Black Americans by racially-motivated hate groups brought intimidation, lynchings, and violence to our communities. The persistence and coordination of many brought significant progress to the cause of equal rights.

How did we get here? 

Although learning from history might be the best course, the divisions today have a host of new elements that didn’t exist even 50 years ago. In recent decades, and especially since 2008, political polarization has intensified in the U.S. Growing ideological gaps between Democrats and Republicans have grown into significant barriers that hinder collaboration and basic civility. 

A troubling “us versus them” mentality has surged, permeating media and social interactions. Even in love, a decline in politically mixed marriages reveals an increasing ideological separation between individuals. This trend reflects a widening gap across political lines between friends and family members.

The most extreme recent event erupted on January 6th when a group of Americans coordinated an insurrection on the U.S. capital. At least four people died that day, and 140 were injured as the group attempted to overturn the results of a fair and democratic presidential election. 

It can leave us wondering: how did it go this far? 

The new drivers of division

Although not a conclusive list, the following modern elements contribute to this increasing polarization which are diverse and overlapping. 

  • Media fragmentation: “The news” was once watched on T.V. by all at the same time. Today, we can choose from diverse media outlets that cater to our specific ideological leanings across a wide spectrum of views. In order to generate ad revenue, these platforms often design content that elicits strong emotional responses, leading to the amplification of sensational and extreme viewpoints. When Americans of both parties only consume sources that align with their beliefs, it reinforces existing viewpoints and reduces our exposure to diverse perspectives. 
  • Online echo chambers: Similarly, social media platforms like Steam, Discord, Twitter, YouTube, and Apple support the formation of online communities where people engage with like-minded peers. The interaction among like-minded individuals intensifies extreme beliefs, fostering unwavering confidence that can veer into risky behaviors.
  • Economic inequality: You only need to take a trip to the grocery store to note how the cost of living has stretched pocketbooks thin. Growing economic and educational disparities among Americans create very different social realities for individuals, leading to divergent perspectives on specific issues. People who struggle to afford health care or housing, for example, experience a different reality than those with enough income to buy a home. Being unable (or unwilling) to “walk in another’s shoes” to understand another’s experiences further fuels polarization and the certainty of rightness.
  • Cultural Shifts: Evolving views on social issues like gender equality or the rights of LGBTQ+ people seem to cause a backlash of polarization. For example, in recent history, laws like the Violence Against Women Act in 1994, the Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Act in 2009, and the ongoing discussion around the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) reflect changing attitudes towards gender equality. The #MeToo movement—which grew exponentially in 2017—has done likewise. Not all Americans want attention called to entrenched unjust systems that benefit a few. Some groups feel threatened by women and LGBTQ+ people gaining equal footing, and seek to bring us back to a time when only a small, elite group held all the power.
  • Partisan Rhetoric: For the last eight years, we’ve seen influential figures using divisive rhetoric and engaging in base insults of (perceived) opponents. The use of inflammatory language and the emphasis on “winning” at all costs exacerbates societal divisions and gives hatred a platform of legitmacy. When elected officials use their platforms to grandstand rather than support the will of the People, our democracy loses and the divide between neighbors widens.

Partisan rifts weaken effective governance

Polarization isn’t just dangerous to our communities, at the congressional level, hostility has led to a concerning shift away from collaboration, policy discussions, and other congressional norms—even within parties. Policymaking and governance are already difficult enough, so animosity creates more hurdles to passing laws to solve our nation’s issues.

The consequence of political roadblocks within Congress give politicians no other choice but to use unconventional channels to accomplish their goals, further eroding institutional and democratic norms. Examples of this include:

  • Gridlock in Congress: This branch of government should ideally forge agreements between parties to solve issues of national concern. In recent years, partisan polarization has hindered the passage of legislation, resulting in governmental stalemates and relying on temporary funding measures for spending bills. Once an effective tool for compromise, committee hearings are shorter, less effective, and less frequent. Similarly, there is a record low for the number of debates on the floor for bills. The movement of most legislation has slowed to more than 60 days.
  • Use of Executive Actions: When Congress fails to perform its primary function of creating laws and passing budgets, presidents from both parties have increasingly turned to executive orders to bypass legislative hurdles. This method of implementing policy changes without congressional approval leads to backlash about the overreach of executive power.
  • Confirmation roadblocks: Judicial appointments are the backbone of the third branch of government, but the nomination process for federal judges and key government positions have become highly contentious. Instead of honoring historical norms of bipartisan cooperation in confirming nominees, the process is increasingly characterized by partisan clashes and strategic delays.

Collectively, these trends highlight a pressing concern: the impact of incivility extends far beyond ideological differences. It poses a genuine threat to the foundational principles of democracy, yielding only governance gridlock, extreme beliefs, erosion of democratic values, and an unsettling surge in violence.

We must stop the spread of the belief that our neighbors are enemies. They are not.

Hopeful solutions for quelling polarization

With such a seeming powerful trend toward increased violence and eroding democratic norms, it can appear that the outcome of tyranny is inevitable. It is most certainly not. 

  1. Expand your media consumption: Understanding starts with you. Find your preferred news sources in this chart and decide whether you want to add or adjust the kind of media you consume. Adding neutral and diverse perspectives in your consumption of the news can decrease your own polarization and create understanding of other communities and groups. Consider subscribing to a service that presents both conservative and liberal views on current events, side by side.
  2. Promote civic education: Educated citizens are better equipped to engage in civil discourse and navigate complex issues. Communities are stronger when their citizens understand democratic principles. Advocate for civic education in schools and provide free resources to school boards. Want to test your own knowledge? Take a high school civics test.
  3. Encourage Cross-Party Dialogue: Especially since 2016, numerous organizations have sprung up to facilitate respectful conversations among individuals with diverse viewpoints. Participating in and supporting these efforts can bridge divides, assist meaningful engagement, and foster empathy and understanding. View this comprehensive list of organizations fostering dialog in America.
  4. Support electoral reform: You’ll regularly find actions in the Americans of Conscience that promote electoral reform. When communities implement reforms like ranked-choice voting or advocate for fair, nonpartisan redistricting, they mitigate the effects of polarization. These reduce the dominance of extreme factions and incentivize candidates to appeal to a wider spectrum of voters.
  5. Improve media literacy: We regularly include actions in the Checklist urging social media platforms to curb the spread of false information and hate speech. At the personal level, sharing fact-checking initiatives can help create a more informed electorate. Offering tactful suggestions can influence your immediate circle. Ensure you know how to recognize misinformation online.
  6. Encourage bipartisan cooperation: You’re likely among the 67% of Americans who want leaders to prioritize cooperation over partisanship. Encouraging leaders to take the lead on meaningful connection and collaborate across party lines can help rebuild democratic institutions and prevent further degradation. The Americans of Conscience Checklist helps you thank elected leaders for cooperating with their ethical peers. Consider calling your elected officials (local, state, and Congressional) to ask what more they can do to build bridges back to collaboration and collegiality.

Creating a culture of civility and respect

Shifting political polarization back to civility demands a holistic approach that addresses complex factors. No single solution will completely eradicate polarization, but a combination of strategies can work towards mitigating its effects and foster a more united and functional democracy.

If we look to the past for inspiration, it’s clear that change happens when each person does their small part in service to a greater good. Take any suggestion from this list to join the effort reinvigorate our democracy.

We’re a community of Americans of conscience saving democracy, one action at a time. We’re Americans of every political party who believe we can create a kind and thriving nation by working together. If you’d like to join our effort, sign up for our twice-monthly Checklist of pro-democracy, pro-equality, pro-planet actions.

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