The Chicken & The Egg: What is the root of our polarization?

Just about everyone is fed up with the gridlock and partisanship in Washington. We know that there are important problems we need to solve but the polarization in Congress is preventing us from passing any bills of substance. Who bears the blame for this?

As citizens, we look at Congress. We say that they’re to blame. A July 2014 Gallup poll shows that only 15% of Americans approve of the way Congress is handling its job. While 22% think that the best way to fix Congress would be to “Fire/replace all members/Get all new people,” the next highest and arguably more realistic solution is more “Bipartisan cooperation/Work together/Get along better.” 14% of respondents believed that this was the best plan. 1

Via http://www.gallup.com/poll/172859/congressional-approval-rating-languishes-low-level.aspx

Via http://www.gallup.com/poll/172859/congressional-approval-rating-languishes-low-level.aspx

Via http://www.gallup.com/poll/172859/congressional-approval-rating-languishes-low-level.aspx

Via http://www.gallup.com/poll/172859/congressional-approval-rating-languishes-low-level.aspx

But let’s also take a moment to look in the mirror. Where do the partisanship, vitriol, and unyielding demands come from? Well, a lot of the times, it’s us – the citizens. We ask for compromise and bipartisanship yet we are often unwilling to make any allowances ourselves. In a past post, I cited a poll that I believe is relevant here as well:

[quote author=” “]As reported by the National Journal, not only has the percentage of Americans who consistently express conservative or liberal views doubled (from 10% to 21%), but we are becoming increasingly negative towards the opposing group. According to the Pew study relied upon by this article “The percentage of Republicans who hold a highly negative view of Democrats is 43 percent” while “[n]early four-in-10 Democrats loathe Republicans.”[/quote]

This poll says that, as citizens, we strongly dislike, some may even say hate, anyone with an opposing view point. We beg our leaders to get more done, reach across the aisle, and compromise but are in an uproar when they actually do. Everyone agrees that immigration reform is needed and elected officials say they will work together on it. But what do we come up with? A bill that compromises but that neither side is fully happy with because it doesn’t go far enough one way or the other. Because here’s the thing: When we say we want compromise, what we really mean is that we want the other side to do it, not our own.

And this polarization seems to only be getting worse. While technology can be empowering and connect us instantly with someone on the other side of the world, it can also be silencing and allow us to self-select into the content we want to see. As former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright brought up in a TechTable, technology, in some cases, has “disaggregated the voices” and allows us to only listen to those with whom we agree. She continued saying that while it’s nice to group with people you know, it “can be dangerous if it curdles into hatred of others.” A recent article in The New York Times Upshot blog supports this notion. The article discusses the results of a recent report from the Pew Research Center and Rutgers University, which shows that social media “has the effect of tamping down diversity of opinion and stifling debate about public affairs.” It also “makes people less likely to voice opinions, particularly when they think their views differ from those of their friends.”2 In an effort to keep us engaged, the sites themselves also play into this, perhaps unknowingly, by only showing us want we want to see.

[quote author=” “]“The Internet, it seems, is contributing to the polarization of America, as people surround themselves with people who think like them and hesitate to say anything different. Internet companies magnify the effect, by tweaking their algorithms to show us more content from people who are similar to us.”[/quote]

To be clear, I am blaming gridlock on neither citizens nor Congress. But we both have a role to play. It’s sort of like the chicken and the egg question: while we don’t know exactly where it starts, we know it’s a cycle. Congress is there to serve the public and therefore will try to do what will please us the most. If we are divided, then they will likely be divided. But at the same time, in our representative democracy, we elect Congress to act in our best interest even when, and especially when, we, as the citizens, don’t know what that best interest may be. They are our advocates and in many ways, I think we look to them as a model for what’s right and wrong.

So in summary, we all need to do better. Let’s keep our passions and fight for what we believe in but at the same time, let’s recognize that sometimes the path to what we want isn’t always straight. Sometimes we have to accept compromise, to take a step back, or allow for a step by step process to get to where we’re supposed to be. We have to do this together though. It won’t work if both groups do not agree. So can we do it? Can we make it ok to work together?

Resources
1 Dugan, A. (2015, July 15). Congressional Approval Rating Languishes at Low Level. Gallup Politics. Retrieved from http://www.gallup.com/poll/172859/congressional-approval-rating-languishes-low-level.aspx
2 Miller, C. (2014, Aug 26). How Social Media Silences Debate. The New York Times Upshot. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2014/08/27/upshot/how-social-media-silences-debate.html

Block Quote Sources

1) Fournier, R. (2014). Hard-core, hardheaded, hateful partisans are crowding out our politics. The National Journal. Retrieved from http://www.nationaljournal.com/politics/hard-core-hardheaded-hateful-partisans-are-crowding-out-our-politics-20140612

2) Miller, C. (2014, Aug 26). How Social Media Silences Debate. The New York Times Upshot. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2014/08/27/upshot/how-social-media-silences-debate.html

Featured image via http://www.politixcartoons.com/cartoon/the-chicken-or-the-egg/

1 Comment

  1. T4A.org – State of Bipartisanship on November 10, 2014 at 7:57 am

    […] few weeks ago, I wrote a post about polarization in this country and the role of the American people in the worsening of this […]