Why we should care about polarization

Other than the fact that our national civic dialog feels like an elementary school food fight, does the increased intensity of political polarization matter? Yes -- profoundly.

Part one of a four-part series on polarization in American media and politics.

Looking back at a year of conversations about media, technology, discourse, and civic life, I’ve been thinking a lot about polarization and if (and if so where) quiet, large majorities may still exist in American politics. ICYMI, I published a book called For ALL the People last Winter all about the collision between modern media systems and our civic life. The all-Zoom-all-the-time book tour produced an awesomely diverse set of conversations about where those systems intersect with more or less everything. (You can see some of them here if interested.) But the topic of our hyperpolarized political discourse was at the center of many of them. How we ended up here matters a lot for understanding how to get out of a present that is not working for us, but clarifying the future we want actually matters even more.

When it comes to political polarization, strong, partisan ideological disagreements have always been part of American politics. How that partisanship has bled into other areas of society and culture feels more insidious and dysfunctional than ever. And even in a world with profound ideological differences, historically there was at least an idealized idea that those ideological differences did not entirely define most people’s relationships to each other and to their communities. Even that ideal was an inherently privileged view that excluded huge swaths of Americans that’s weren’t allowed to be part of that discussion or participate in civic life. Cultural nostalgia and the potency of American mythology often lead us to overestimate the quality of historical public discourse. But I think we also tend to underestimate the profound consequences of the pressure our modern media systems are putting on the faults already present in society.

Whether those faults are ideological or class-based or geographic, communication systems meant to connect and expand our experience, help us create more diverse relationships, and build empathy are actually narrowing our worldview, increasing the effectiveness of disinformation, and accelerating the spread of misinformation. We have more access to more information created by more and more diverse voices than ever and are also suffering from weakening ideas, smaller, more homogenous networks, more loneliness, and less productive civic dialog and leadership than ever. We often confine these problems to “just social media” or “cable news” when in fact our information landscape can no longer be so cleanly sorted in to discrete channels.

Facebook’s News Feed (2006) plus Ads (2007) plus the Like button (2009) have been running their integrated algorithm about a dozen years, optimizing at every turn for more engagement, to maximize Facebook’s attention inventory and drive their business. The consequences of that algorithm play out not just as a sorting power inside Facebook, but combine with similar systems of hyperpersonalization across the internet to slowly transform how narratives and credible information are consumed and shared across all media systems. Together, they shape what is covered in news, what stories from other media get shared back to social, and how “mainstream” narrative are defined. The aggregate effects of a decade of pressure are exposing fraying edges of weak points in our democratic institutions and social contract that have always been present but easy to ignore under the comforting balm of American mythology. It turns out our civic systems and social contract weren’t designed to withstand this kind of pressure, and we must acknowledge what that pressure is revealing about society and what we are willing to do about it to live in actual community as a nation.

Beyond a messy information landscape that many hope to retreat from and increasingly attempt to tune out, how does this polarization affect other aspects of community and our social contract? Why does it matter that we don’t have a shared debate? Beyond cable news and what seems like a narrow, self-centered power struggle of political posturing and campaigns, where does this polarization put pressure on society? These are the fundamental questions we must engage with. Because we rely on stories and the ideologies they represent to make sense of our massively complex modern life, these fractures are being revealed in all sorts of elements of our social contract — some in ways that reveal opportunity to question some of the underlying assumptions about how we’ve put together culture, but some in ways that undermine our capacity to live in community at all. They put stress on our friendships and family ties. They push people away from civic participation in a participatory democracy by decreasing commitment to others and narrowing our idea of who is in our ingroup. They increase our reliance on proximity as substitutes for authority and credibility which we rely on as key components of trust. And they undermine our ability to consistently determine the facts that form the foundation of shared truth. The consequences are all around us — we just aren’t connecting them to their source.

Unfortunately, many feel that because these fractures are not new, that with new pressure, they are simply revealing the inevitable collapse of a system that can only function under the guise of mythology and blurry insight, that these problems will not be solved, that we are past some point of no return. As the optimist in most conversations I’m part of, I’m often given the “you’re nuts or naive or something” look lately. But based on my limited view of the world and experience talking with lots of people, I remain convinced that this pessimism (although a justified feeling I wrestle with daily) is far from inevitable and that the sensationalized and oversimplified story about American politics we see in media is pretty inconsistent with what most people want and believe. And if the dominant narrative serves some small but very powerful set of interests, then I believe we can find levers and pathways to new models that serve more of us — if we can realign the business incentives of media with our needs. This point is where understanding what we mean by polarization and its true consequences intersect with our vision for the future we want. If we can understand our present with more humility and express that vision of the future with more clarity and conviction, we can let our choices about how to transform our present be guided by the future we want rather than as the inevitable consequences of the decisions and momentum of the past.

The next three essays in this series will dig deeper into who that larger majority of America might be and what that larger majority might want, what the actual consequences in our daily lives of polarization really are, and how we can begin to heal. If this setup to my exploration of polarization feels too much like describing the water, hang on. We often need the “this is water” moment before turning our heads and looking for the other path.