Jayne: Political polarization isn't cool for future of our nation

By Greg Jayne, Columbian opinion editor

Published:

 
photoGreg Jayne, Opinion page editor

Guess what: I might be wrong.

I know, I know, such a statement is anathema in our modern political climate. We live in an era of strident opposition, an era in which ideological purity is considered a virtue, an era in which accepting the notion that you might be on the wrong side of a political issue is greeted with scorn.

You sensed all that, of course, but just in case there were some doubts, a new Pew Research Center report has arrived to lay them to rest. A survey about the political beliefs of more than 10,000 adults from across the country has confirmed what we already thought — we hate each other. Or at least those on the other side of the political fence. Or at least those who disagree with us because, you know, they are wrong.

Oh, hate might be too strong of a word. But consider this finding from Pew: 27 percent of Democrats and 36 percent of Republicans say positions taken by the other party are a “threat to the nation’s well-being.” Seriously. Many of us are so insulated in our ideological beliefs that we fear the other side is actually a danger to the country.

Which, if you think about it, doesn’t say much for our belief in this nation or her people or the sturdiness of our political system. If you fear that a particular political ideology is a threat to this country, then ye of little faith.

Let’s face it, we aren’t talking about the United States being torn between Communists and Anarchists. Our political parties, even with their vast differences, are not that far apart on the political spectrum, even if both have moved away from the center over the past two decades. Look at President Obama, who some critics have claimed is a socialist; as more than one pundit has pointed out, with the soaring stock market and the growth of wealth for our richest citizens, if Obama is a socialist, he’s a pretty lousy one.

‘Ideological silos’

Yet, as the Pew Center discovered, we are indeed more polarized than in the past. Today, 92 percent of Republicans are to the right of the median Democrat, compared with 64 percent in 1994; and 94 percent of Democrats are to the left of the median Republican, compared with 70 percent two decades ago.

Our political differences are sharper than in the past, which makes compromise and agreement less attainable — both in Washington, D.C., and on Main Street. Yet even this does not portend the demise of the republic. As Clive Crook wrote for Bloomberg News: “Ideological rivalry is a good thing, not a bad thing: It’s the reason for democracy, not a drawback of democracy. However, when rivalry hardens into a sullen standoff — not a contest of ideas but a bloody-minded refusal to engage — you have a problem.” And the growing disconnect between ideologies does present a problem.

“Ideological silos are now common on both the left and the right,” the Pew report states, noting that people increasingly confine political discussions to those who share their views. “People with down-the-line ideological positions — especially conservatives — are more likely than others to say that most of their close friends share their political views.”

Therein lies the problem. Ideological purity has displaced intellectual curiosity, and strident opposition has displaced a quest for compromise as we act with the ethos that extremism in the defense of our beliefs is no vice. Ah, but it is a vice, and we are much dumber for it — a fact that is reflected in the dysfunction in Washington, D.C.

As Andy Smarick wrote for the Thomas Fordham Institute: “Once we make a decision, our minds are far less curious, our postures far less open, and our views far less supple than we’d like to believe.”

Personally, I’m in favor of open postures and supple viewpoints. I’m in favor of seeing whether my political opinions stand up to challenge and scrutiny. I’m in favor of considering the fact that, on occasion, I might be wrong. And the more Americans who do that, the stronger our nation becomes.