Exploring Polarization and Centrism: Hating one does not mean we should love the other
American newspapers are littered with headlines calling polarization a poisonous threat to American democracy. Earlier this year The Atlantic had a headline warning of “The Doom Spiral of Pernicious Polarization.” Many in the commentariat blame the growth of divisive movements and radical policy for the animosity of our current political system, proposing centrism as a salve for our crumbling democracy. However, further inspection reveals inflammatory and manipulative rhetoric from political commentators play a much larger role, while so-called radicals are chastised for proposing legitimate solutions.
Perhaps no one better represents these misplaced concerns better than former 2020 presidential candidate Andrew Yang who is now founder and leader of the Forward Party. The Forward Party platform declares that members will “approach each other with grace and tolerance, finding ways to pick people back up rather than knock them down. We won’t cancel people or cast them out of the party for not falling in line.” The party also promises that it “won’t ignore problems so that we can use them to drive wedges between Americans; nothing gets done when opposing views are treated like enemy positions.” Yang’s party is indicative of the common feeling of discontent with the hostility and partisanship in the current political system in the U.S. This feeling is echoed by Former Chair of the Washington State Republican Party Chris Vance. Vance, after leaving the Republican Party due to Donald Trump’s election and the “the ascendancy of the alt-right Pat Buchanan wing of the GOP,” describes himself as “politically homeless” in a piece for the Seattle Times in which he argues for a third, centrist political party.
Political commentators have been calling for a return to centrism in an attempt to counteract hyperpartisanship. However, arguing for centrism misidentifies the problem at hand. Americans hate the concept of polarization because it’s allegedly breaking our democracy, but ideological movements aren’t the issue. What’s “radical” is relative to what is accepted at a given time period. Increased acceptance of formerly radical ideas has caused many people to support important movements like Black Lives Matter, who may have otherwise been unwilling to question the status quo.
Rather, it’s the tribalistic hatred towards one’s political opponents–and the aggressive partisanship that entails–that’s causing democratic backsliding, misinformation, and the rampant use of political buzzwords in place of policy. Despite its alluring, comfortable appearance, centrism isn’t going to save our democracy, because ideological polarization isn’t what’s hurting it. Radical ideas have always been and will continue to be at the forefront of social and political progress.
The Black Lives Matter movement has been one of the nation’s most socially polarizing movements, especially since 2020. Researchers have characterized the protests following George Floyd’s death as the most “sweeping and sustained protests in the country’s history.” Movement for Black Lives co-founder Alicia Garza told Chuck Todd on NBC’s Meet the Press, “Seven years ago, people thought that Black Lives Matter was a radical idea… And yet Black Lives Matter is now a household name and it’s something being discussed across kitchen tables all over the world.”
This former conception of the Black Lives Matter movement as a “radical” idea illustrates how radical ideas are not inherently a threat to democracy. A Washington Post-Schar School poll found that 69% of Americans believed that George Floyd’s death reflects a broader issue in police treatment of Black people, while only 43% of Americans said the same about police shootings after Michael Brown’s death in 2014. What is defined as “radical” is relative and constantly changing. Radical ideas—those that aren’t based in discrimination, at least—aren’t tearing the country apart. Opposition directed at opponents themselves, rather than their ideas, creates a much more potent threat.
This hostile partisanship makes voters prioritize party success over policy positions. Peter K. Enns of Cornell University found that, during the 2016 election, rather than choosing the candidate that most aligned with their positions on race and immigration, voters would adjust their opinions to align with the positions of whichever candidate, Trump or Clinton, they already supported. This illustrates the power of partisanship, but it also explains how politicians and political commentators can rely on buzzwords and inflammatory rhetoric to boost support for their own campaigns and outlets: voters motivated by partisanship are less focused and thus less informed on policy, making them more susceptible to confirmation bias and misinformation campaigns.
To give an example, newly re-elected Illinois Congresswoman Mary Miller tweeted in April of 2022, “Joe Biden's plan is to flood our country with terrorists, fentanyl, child traffickers, and MS-13 gang members.” Here, Miller manages to use both misinformation and inflammatory buzzwords to sow distrust towards a political opponent. Political players understand that there is underlying anger toward the opposing political party. Harnessing this anger is beneficial for building party unity and tribalism, but it decenters relevant, necessary policy and instead reinforces unproductive political tensions.
Though fundamental political leanings are rooted in one’s values, and it is natural to have some aversion towards those which contradict one’s system of personal morality, this phenomenon has dangerous repercussions that can lead to democratic backsliding, as shown in a 2020 study conducted by Yale University Professors Matthew H. Graham and Milan W. Svolik. The study reveals that U.S. voters are more likely to forgive undemocratic behavior and stances if politicians subscribe to the voter’s own political party. Only around 13.2% of study participants were willing to vote against their party for the sake of voting for a candidate who did not violate democratic principles. Notably, this signal of democratic backsliding has little to do with policy positions. But, after seeing politicians and media take advantage of voter hostility, as well as the resulting destruction of democracy caused by hostile partisanship, calls for a third centrist party make sense. The Forward Party claims that they “stand for doing, not dividing. That means rejecting the far Left and far Right and pursuing common ground.” The problem is, the claims that ideological extremes inhibit the “doing” or are even the primary causes of division are founded in a misidentification of the issue at hand. The harm caused by polarization has not been rooted in an increased radicalization of policy, it’s been rooted in hostile partisanship. This misplaced blame leads to an advocacy of centrism, pulling party policy back toward a status-quo center and away from real issues being discussed on the political fringe.
As the New York Times’ Jamelle Bouie noted in a July 2022 column, the only marginally successful third parties in U.S. history have been wholeheartedly polarizing—the Free Soil Party, the Populist Party and Theodor Roosevelt’s Progressive Party come to mind. These parties argued to stop the expansion of slavery, oppose the railroad and banking elite, and engage in progressive movement-inspired reforms, respectively. Most third parties brought ideas that were considered radical to the forefront of political debate; their positions were worth discussing precisely because of the polarization they evoked. Legislative politics is provoked by disagreements about what should change and how. By nature, change is divisive. A centrist third party, though appealing to the exhausted middle in theory, ignores both the nature of politics and the historically proven value of radicalism.
Some of the most significant policies and movements that we look back on with admiration—FDR’s New Deal, the Clean Air Act, the establishment of Medicare and Medicaid, etc.—not to mention the abolition of slavery and nearly every law passed as a result of a human rights movement, have been driven by politicians and activists that were seen as radical at the outset. If we allow ourselves to be scared into dismissing radical policy as too extreme, we not only allow hostile partisanship to continue to perpetuate itself, but we pass up on opportunities to make significant, necessary change.
The image used in this article is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike 4.0 International license. The original image was authored by Ted Eytan and can be found here.