Last week, I had an enlightening phone call with Dr. Jonathan Weiler, a Professor of Global Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He and his colleague, Marc Hetherington, have been researching the roots of polarization in the United States for the last fifteen years. The pair has published a book called Authoritarianism and Polarization in American Politics, which hit the market in 2009. Then, following the cultural and political changes which swept the nation in the years since then, the duo put out an updated book called Prius or Pickup.
“In both of these, we made the argument that understanding people’s psychological world views had become essential for understanding the nature of polarization in the United States,” Dr. Weiler says.
Dr. Weiler maintains that prior to the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960’s, most Americans identified as Democrats or Republicans based on “their views on the size of government, economic issues, and what [they thought] was the government’s responsibility to intervene in economic life.” But because the Civil Rights Movement led many Americans to think of politics in emotionally potent terms, the political fault line became a cultural one, revolving around how people think about difference in an increasingly multi-cultural society. “We’ve always had people with different psychological worldviews, but fifty years ago those psychological worldviews didn’t determine whether you were Democrat or Republican,” says Dr. Weiler.
My conversation with Dr. Weiler and my resulting attempt to write this article has been a unique challenge, because it forced me to re-evaluate my understanding of polarization as a cultural concept. Many of us perceive polarization as a recent phenomenon, one that forms an unnecessary barrier between conflicting party groups and which inhibits productive and compassionate conversation between groups. And there is truth to that – at least to the extent that this deep divide is unproductive in bringing about substantial change. However, the idea of returning to an era free from divide is a damaging fantasy.
“That older ‘consensus’ is a false consensus, in part because it was built on the repression of significant groups of the population,” says Dr. Weiler. “The achievements of the 60’s and 70’s and beyond is the important trigger for why we have the kind of polarization we do now.”
The Zoon Garden effort claims a moderate approach to politics with the goal of decreasing polarization – but this conversation made me stop and consider whether moderate thinking and decreasing polarization is really the goal. If the origin source of modern polarization in the United States is the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960’s, then it’s absurd to fantasize about the political unity present before that.
“Just look at what’s happening in our streets today,” says Dr. Weiler. “I don’t think that people protesting the murder of George Floyd and police brutality want to just be okay with police violence. Compromise and reconciliation just for the sake of it doesn’t go far enough.”
Read that last sentence again. Compromise and reconciliation just for the sake of it doesn’t go far enough. This is an essential idea when discussing the goal of decreasing polarization in the United States. We should not accept a consensus when it is built upon the silence and oppression of groups of people. Our goal should not be to formulate a false agreement. It should not be to return to a time when we did not discuss these vital issues of equality, freedom, and justice – pillars which our nation claims to stand for.
Our goal in decreasing polarization should not be based in silence, passivity, and agreement for the sake of moderation. Instead, perhaps, we can use polarization as a means to its end – we can understand that this sharp divide is indicative of necessary change, and facilitate authentic discussions with a focus on making those changes happen. We can lean into today’s discomfort in order to educate ourselves about the system we live under.
To begin, Dr. Weiler suggests forming local groups with well-intentioned people in your area, whether they are like-minded or not. “Begin to try to have conversations where you really make an effort to understand where the other person is coming from, why they feel the way they do, and what their fears are. There could be a kind of interpersonal change which over time could have an effect on politics more generally.”
I feel that the Zoon Garden platform can help facilitate this sort of authentic space – that we can build a community where we lean into polarization as a way of decreasing its choke-hold on the United States. We can hold space for different psychological, emotional, and economic backgrounds without compromising our stance on the realities of inequality and oppression that have persisted throughout our nation’s history. We can do better, together.