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Polarization Dynamics and a Passion for Inclusion

by Tom Atlee - July 2004

see also Polarization

Anyone interested in the subject of polarization in the U.S. should read the series of articles on "the great divide", issued by the Austin American-Statesman <>.

These articles by Bill Bishop describe HOW political polarization in the U.S. has been increasing since 1976. Bishop gives us a sense of that polarization by looking at counties where one party got at least 60 percent of the presidential election vote. In 1976 only 27 percent of U.S. citizens lived in such polarized counties. That means that thirty years ago, two out of every three U.S. counties had a fair balance between Republicans and Democrats. However, by 2000 the number of polarized counties had doubled to 45 percent. The figure is undoubtedly higher today, and is reflected in the red and blue states and counties so often referred by commentators. (Interestingly, during this same time, U.S. counties have been becoming more racially integrated.) What's happening here?

Although many of us realize that this growing polarization is being fed by carefully crafted media blitzes and spin (see for example, David Brock’s book Blinded by the Right), it turns out that there is much more going on than planned manipulations. And all of it offers great lessons in system dynamics and feedback loops.

One of the most powerful factors is apparently our technologically empowered passion for fellowship, agreement and comfort. As we become more mobile and information becomes more available, we are increasingly moving into communities populated by others who share our lifestyle, including our political inclinations. Conservatives are increasingly surrounded by conservatives and liberals by liberals, to a point where we can easily say, for example, "I don't know anyone who is for (or against) the Iraq war." Furthermore, most of us on all sides are customizing our information sources to speak to our existing databases, ideologies and prejudices, until our views make such powerful sense to us that we end up seeing all contrary perspectives as extremely misguided if not evil or insane. This ideological insulation feeds back into itself, reinforces itself, and feeds the emergence of ever-more extreme views on all sides.

Consider this feedback loop: In a somewhat homogenous community, people hear arguments for (or against) President Bush, for example, repeated over and over, in a thousand different ways. New and different arguments get created, further strengthening people's sense of righteous confidence. Manipulative propaganda then feeds on this sea of agreement and pumps it up emotionally. We find subtle competition beginning within groups, as people try to gain favor by being (or at least appearing) slightly more conservative (or liberal) than their ideological fellows -- which further divides the whole political culture collectively towards the extremes. As this Balkanized atmosphere of conformity grows, people with different or more moderate ideas increasingly remain silent. University of Maryland political demographer James Gimpel notes that "There is no opportunity in those [homogenous] counties or neighborhoods for dissonance to arise. And so by keeping dissonance out, you wind up gravitating toward a more extreme political position. This is one explanaton for the increase in ideology you see not only in the public, but in Congress."

University of Chigago law professor Cass Sunstein notes how increasingly people "see their fellow citizens as confused or vicious, as not fully members of the same community, and that can make discussions and mutual understanding difficult... Some communities think extremely unfair things about the other side."

These trends beef up the polarizing dynamics of partisan politics -- and are, themselves, enhanced by partisan redistricting and narrowly targeted political messages that caricature the other side to rouse the faithful. Journalist Bill Bishop notes: "As counties become more politically pure, they push their representatives in state legislatures and Congress to more extreme positions. Legislative compromise becomes almost impossible. Meanwhile, election campaigns become less interested in convincing a dwindling number of undecided voters and more concerned with whipping up the enthusiasm of their most partisan backers" so they'll come out and vote. Ohio State university political psychologist Jon Krosnick notes that turnout is highest when voters "like one candidate and hate another."

In the end, notes Bishop, "Homogenous communities gerrymandered into homogeous districts produce more extreme and uncompromising representatives." 

These electoral dynamics mean that "the newest members of Congress on average will be more partisan and extreme than the people they replaced. Over time, these shifts change not only the way Congress works, but who runs for office." At all levels of governance, anyone with civility and concern for the common good rapidly becomes overwhelmed by the bitter incivility and stereotyping of the modern political game and drops out. Civic-minded new politicians become disgusted by the destructive campaigns they have to run to be nominated and elected. "People thought of by their peers as good leaders stay away from both Democratic and Republican contests."

Erick Schickler, a Harvard University political scientist, notes that a healthy democracy is served by people recognizing that "your enemy on one issue may be your ally on another issue, and that makes for stability and keeps conflict more cordial and restrained." The new polarization makes that rational civility increasingly difficult for everyone involved.

"One of the ironies of democracy is that citizens who see both sides of an issue are less likely to vote and become politically active than those people who are angry, partisan and unsympathetic to those who think differently." Therefore, the way politics is going, the very people and messages most likely to serve the common good are being marginalized. The extreme partisans that remain in the game won't talk to each other. In a complementary irony, "new ethics laws and press attention to congressional junkets have reduced the opportunities for legislators to form friendships beyond party and ideology." Efforts to undermine the "old boys club" have created legislators who don't like each other at all, don't relax together, and will do anything to undermine each other.

Our adversarial political culture is moving further and further out of a stable state into an unsustainable, increasingly chaotic and internally dysfunctional state. A system at such increasing levels of chaos and dysfunctionality WILL find a new form of order SOMEWHERE. Where will the new order come from?

Extremist or fascistic rule is one solution -- one side systematically wiping out or suppressing the other side and any independent voices. History offers ample examples of that approach, and how smoothly and sometimes suddenly an otherwise normal-seeming society can slip into its grip. This is the path of mutual degradation and collective self-destruction.

Another solution is dialogue -- high quality dialogue -- widespread dialogues among all sorts of people, well-publicized dialogues among selected groups of diverse partisans or citizens, official dialogues among representatives or empowered citizens -- all kinds of dialogue. Through this approach people can learn more about each other, about themselves and about the realities and issues they face, and find better solutions together. This is the path of mutual discovery and collective intelligence.

Which will happen here? Remember: "One of the ironies of democracy is that citizens who see both sides of an issue are less likely to vote and become politically active than those people who are angry, partisan and unsympathetic to those who think differently." This fact does not bode well for our future.

Maybe what we need is some partisan passion about creating a political system which actively encourages the involvement of "citizens who see both sides of an issue," a system that sees treasure in our powerful differences and that knows how to mine that treasure through respect, dialogue, deliberation, and passionate co-creativity.

It is time for us to realize that "seeing both sides" is not a bland, befuddled, middle-of-the-road position. It is our next necessary step onto the leading edge of democracy's evolution. It is a step out of partisanship and polarization into the Whole. It is a required step if we are to find the necessary courage, wisdom and dedication to midwife the birth of a culture that honors the whole picture, the whole community, the whole world, the whole of life.

Seeing the multi-faceted, evolving nature of truth -- even in the midst of political battles -- is our doorway to wholeness. And I say -- with passion -- that that whole -- the ultimate inclusive reality of life that embraces me and you and our erstwhile enemies and everyone else -- deserves our passion even more than its partisan parts.

That inclusive, co-intelligent passion is a passion worth growing into -- together.


PS: If you'd like to share your own passion about this, consider signing the Let's Talk America Petition at

For more articles on Polarization, see



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