Opinion: Defining and defeating polarization

What is polarization, and what can Kansans do about it? More than you might think.

“Polarization” is the tendency for people to identify strongly with their own ideological groups, rejecting anything they associate with their perceived enemies. This makes compromise (and thus governing) difficult and contributes to paranoia, conspiracy theories and fake news.

This isn’t “partisanship,” which is the (sometimes overlapping, but still distinct) practice of embracing a specific political party as a way of advancing your political views. Rather, the problem here is “affective polarization,” which is when people tightly associate their racial, religious, regional, gender, social and other identities alongside their ideological beliefs.

Of course, human beings have always engaged in this kind of political sorting, mostly unintentionally. Everyone knows that Kansas is pretty conservative but that Lawrence is less conservative than Salina and so forth. This simply reflects the different people who live in particular places, the ways they express themselves and how those expressions are absorbed, rejected and/or passed along to others. It’s an inevitable, historical, almost natural process.

What is new is how, thanks to technological and corporate trends that globalize and centralize public discourse, people associate those organic groupings with very specific ideological packages. Everyone thus gets labeled in an ever-intensifying cultural war: If you’re white and live in Kansas, you must be a church-going Fox News watcher and therefore believe this idea and oppose that group; but if you’re Black and live in New York City, you’re a secular New York Times-reader and believe this other idea and oppose that other group, etc.

This doesn’t describe everyone, of course. Still, it has become common enough that almost everyone is noticing. Nearly a third of all Americans believe that affective polarization, and the sometimes hateful tribalism it creates, is a bigger problem than any other threat we face.

Most of the social research on polarization shows that the culprits usually blamed for this phenomenon — ideological extremism, increasing diversity, etc. — are actually secondary. The real problem is simply patterns of separation: that is, of working and playing and worshipping in ways where you do not interact with people you disagree with, or simply living in places where you’re not even aware of the variety and debate all around you. Which means the solution to affective polarization is to be found in the specific places we live, work, worship and play.

Some scholars call this “micro-level pluralism.” We’re not talking about large-scale diversity or educational programs; we’re talking about local institutions which regularly perform ideological outreach (even if they don’t call it that), in a context of locally earned civic trust.

It may surprise some readers who see Kansas as a homogenous place, but actually we score well in this regard. One of the most valuable examples of micro-level pluralism is distinct educational institutions — public and private, religious and secular — woven into the fabric of distinct communities. Kansas has a larger number and a greater variety of such institutions per capita than almost any other state. Which means Kansas communities, however much vicious fights between different Republican and Democratic factions seem to dominate the environment, is actually filled with hundreds of small educational and religious groups, motivated by diverse causes, interacting with one another in unnoticed, polarization-reducing ways.

With the nation deeply divided, Kansas obviously can’t — and doesn’t — escape affective polarization entirely. But so long as Kansas recognizes the value of, and works to preserve, these and many other kinds of small and distinct local institutions, our civic divides will likely remain less deep, and more negotiable, than you might believe.

— Russell Arben Fox teaches politics at Friends University in Wichita.


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