What it means to live in polarized times


We live in a divided country. And I don’t just mean politically.

Our economy is creating winners and losers, with no clear way up the ladder for millions of Americans. The last few decades have produced great inequality of wealth, and with it unequal access to the levers of power. We’re split along regional lines. We’re divided along rural and urban lines. We increasingly struggle with differences of race, religion and class.

We’re also divided politically and ideologically. Abortion, gun rights, same-sex marriage, the use and abuse of police power, curbs on corporate power, environmental protection: these issues elicit strong feelings and cut deeply through the electorate.

They’re also reflected in the overt partisan divisions that show up in elections, and thus in legislatures and Congress. The parties in many ways play a more important role in how people vote and how they think about political issues than we usually imagine. Although there are plenty of Americans who disdain party allegiance, many of us lean toward one party or the other — and whether we acknowledge it or not, more often than not follow its lead and vote for its candidates.

These divides are permeating our politics in ways that, a generation ago, would have been unthinkable. It’s not just that public debate has become coarser, less civil, and more mean-spirited. It’s that partisanship is being woven into places we once believed were safe from it, such as the courts — witness the current debate over the nomination of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court.

So what do we do about this? The answer, actually, is not complicated.

We have to boost public understanding about how to participate in the process. We have to be more mindful about the quality of public dialogue. We have to appreciate the roles of cooperation, collaboration and compromise in a representative democracy.

We have to vote for and value leaders who deal with opponents not as enemies, but with respect, civility, and a recognition that they share more in common than divides them.

This means listening carefully and trying to understand the other’s point of view. It means figuring out how to accommodate differences, so that rather than every fight producing winners and losers, everyone can walk away with something gained.

It means striving not to destroy your opponent, but instead persuading her or him to reach a result that helps everyone claim some measure of success. It means recognizing we’re all in this together — that we’re all searching for the common good.

Because in the end, the political process depends on personal relationships — the bonds between key actors, including elected politicians, their staff, their supporters and others. And not just in politics at the federal level. It’s everyone from members of Congress to state legislators to township trustees.

We must not let the political extremes dominate discourse — they don’t reflect the views of most Americans, who tend to value moderation.

The greatness of our country rests on shared ideals that go beyond party labels. Most Americans want to believe that better days are ahead, that progress is possible, and that major policy disagreements may not be easily resolved, but do yield to discussion that is carried on rationally and with civility and respect.

This is not just wishful thinking. There are real-world examples. For instance, the divisions we’ve faced in foreign policy have often been mitigated when political opponents shared the view that U.S. leadership is good for the world. Or, on the domestic side, divergent views on how to provide affordable health care to all have been brought together by addressing incremental steps.

One peculiarity of this time of great unease, when lack of confidence in the country and its institutions is rampant and our differences are accentuated, is that it comes at a moment of economic growth. In the past, it’s usually been a sour economy that exacerbated divisions.

That’s a puzzle, but it’s also an opportunity. It means that we have a prosperous economic backdrop that should allow us more easily to find common ground with one another, as I’ve seen happen in the past. It’s time to step up our game, move past our differences, and propel the country forward.

Lee Hamilton is a Senior Adviser for the Indiana University Center on Representative Government; a Distinguished Scholar, IU School of Global and International Studies; and a Professor of Practice, IU School of Public and Environmental Affairs. He was a Democratic member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.

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