The local costs of polarization

People often talked about ignoring our nationalized dysfunctional political discourse and focusing locally. Is that even possible? What is polarization costing us?

Part three of a four-part series on polarization in American media and politics. To begin at the beginning, start here.

The macroconsequences of our increasingly polarized politics are reshaping all of culture. From who we work with to who we hope our children marry, political partisanship is finding its way into more and more elements of our ostensibly non-political lives. The constant refrain of dysfunction and partisanship is becoming a self-fulfilling downward spiral as people lose faith in leaders, leaders engage in even more partisan posturing to maintain cultural relevance and survive more extreme primaries, government gets less and less productive, and people lose faith that leaders will lead. We’re familiar with the refrain. But how does this show up in our daily lives? How does it play out in our local communities? We lament the nationalization of politics as one of the causes of hyperpolarization, but just how does this nationalization damage our capacity to live in community? Can we ignore the national noise?

We all feel these consequences everyday, but we may not know where to locate them or how to connect them to larger trends. I feel them almost daily in the Village of Rhinebeck, NY, where I live. We have worked hard in the four years we’ve lived here to be locals, not transplants, to be useful, to be part of our new community. I am a member of our all-volunteer fire department as an EMT, and my wife is a village trustee (our version of a tiny city council). As we have gotten more involved, we talk often about who participates in the community, who volunteers, who comes to public meetings, and who doesn’t — and how (if you ask folks who’ve been here longer than us) that’s been changing over the last couple decades.

Through the pandemic, a number of community support organizations played important roles in supporting community members struggling through shutdowns. A handful of our EMTs helped one of our local churches manage food pantry distribution — almost exclusively the few liberal members of the department. There seem to be significant overlaps between our local community organization, Rhinebeck Responds, and our local Indivisible and liberal political group Hudson Valley Strong. Our all-volunteer fire department is predominantly longer-tenured and more conservative community members who are deeply committed to the community, and almost none of whom I ever see at town meetings. Similarly, our local American Legion members support neighbors in all sorts of ways including things like home repairs for folks who can’t afford them, but are rarely part of public civic processes. Whether what I am seeing is a consequence or cause of the sorting and polarization we are exploring here is tough to disentangle. Am I only seeing other generally liberal folks engaging because I am liberal and am seeing others like me and just not seeing my more conservative neighbors at work in other parts of the community? Possibly. But our community is very, very small — only a couple thousand people, and it seems clear that the more civic community engagement gets, the more adjacent to politics at any level, the less everyone is participating, but especially our more conservative community members.

Over the last couple decades Rhinebeck Village has gotten more liberal and is now more liberal than the Town of Rhinebeck that surrounds it, which is more liberal than Dutchess County as a whole. This shift is largely a consequence of more urban transplants emigrating to the Hudson Valley (including me). But how does that partisan demographic shift relate to the seeming decrease in community participation broadly and specifically to more conservative members participating even less?

Putting some structure and explanation to what often looks like apathy — but feels like something else — has been difficult. In the same way that we tend to lazily blame young people’s low voter participation rates on apathy when in fact it is largely driven by a combination of lack of inspiration and barriers to access (some intentionally placed) for young people and students, we tend to blame low civic participation on people not caring enough to engage. But my experience with my more conservative neighbors, my friends at the firehouse, and many of the long-time locals is of people deeply committed to service and to each other but who often feel dismissed or disregarded by newer, more liberal community members and who are often suspicious of the motives of their changing, increasingly liberal community leaders. These folks are not apathetic: they love the village and the area. They and their families have been working in and raising families in these communities for generations. They think other people don’t care about them and don’t believe they are wanted in the community conversation — or perhaps even in the community at all. But why? Especially in cases where there hasn’t been some specific grievance or direct personal conflict, where would that sense of mistrust come from?

I stumbled onto this Gallup study from last year that suggest a connection between polarization, trust, and community attachment, that specifically undermines that lazy lazy conclusion, and that may also suggest a path forward. The entire analysis is worth digging into, but in summary, Gallup saw very different responses in different groups as people’s perception of how different their views were from what they perceived to be the dominant views of their community. In other words, how people feel when they believe they are in a political outgroup. All people’s sense of community attachment goes down when they feel less aligned ideologically with their neighbors regardless of party — from 82% when they feel no ideological gap down to 62%. So for almost 2/3 of folks, they still retain a sense of community attachment even when they feel a significant ideological gap with that community. But for Republicans, not only does their community attachment fall, the likelihood that they trust people in their local area collapses from 75 to 45%. Lack of trust makes people less likely to expect trust from others, less likely to engage, less likely to expect good intentions in others, less likely to be concerned for others. Less community attachment and less trust combined with some of the core features of a more conservative worldview (focus on self-reliance and personal responsibility, heavy value on loyalty) may make civic participation not just less likely but basically pointless. How they behave when they feel this way drives them away from civic engagement. If we add to these attachment and trust reactions to shifting political demographics, the dismissive tone of smug liberals who openly exclude more conservative voices from political conversations as invalid, we have a recipe for a community shearing along political lines and civic engagement getting less prevalent and more homogeneous along the same axis.

But if lack of trust is the primary culprit and liberal disrespect and exclusion is secondary (that ordering is debatable) — what can we do about both? With a national GOP embracing — sometimes subtly, sometimes openly — deeply problematic rhetoric (in the form of actively questioning and reducing public trust in democratic norms) and disturbing behavior (in the form of normalizing political violence), sorting how to exclude these truly unacceptable elements of the national political while including conservative community members is profoundly challenging. People finding community and choosing other ways to participate in community isn’t necessarily a problem. Not engaging in our civic life together is. Our singular civic life cannot be sorted by ideology the way community or volunteer organizations might. There is only one Village of Rhinebeck, and we need to all engage in it together. But whose responsibility is more inclusive civic participation? Who has the opportunity to rebuild trust amongst political outgroups in our local communities?

The answers to all of these (coming in part four) is where I will get back to being my usual optimistic self.