The Increasing Polarization of Politics and Society - Seeker's Thoughts

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The Increasing Polarization of Politics and Society

 Polarization in politics and society has become a serious source of anxiety for many nations, so in this series we will investigate its development and its ramifications on government, society, and people's personal lives.

One should expect some degree of ideological or partisan divide, which may even prove beneficial3,4. But mass political polarization is alarming and poses a threat to democratic functioning2,5. Furthermore, increasing polarization has negative repercussions for individual citizens; including feelings of injustice, close-mindedness or intolerance6.

What is political polarization?

Political polarization refers to large and increasing gaps between attitudes and beliefs on both sides of the aisle. When this happens, voters tend to align only with one party because their choices are limited and it may be hard for them to find candidates who share similar views in another party. Furthermore, people tend to view opponents negatively - an effect known as "affective polarization," according to new research led by Brown University economists Levi Boxell and Matthew Gentzkow - leading them to predict its rise worldwide.

These views tend to divide people into contrasting camps who view one another as moral enemies, contesting their moral legitimacy. As a result, compromise and reaching agreements for the common good become impossible.

Polarization in U.S. politics has been driven by an upsurge of radical political leaders who advocate an "us versus them" mentality and build their power base through identity politics, as well as using media and social networks to spread their messages.

Some degree of ideological debate and partisan separation is essential in order to represent citizen voices within the political process; however, severe and pernicious polarization has severe repercussions for democracy and society as a whole; in fact, a study using data from Varieties of Democracy project found that harmful levels of polarization correlate with downgraded democracy levels.

Why is polarization happening?

Political polarization is driven by leaders who use fear-mongering tactics like scapegoating to generate fear in order to win votes from voters. Scapegoating can take place against any perceived "other," including immigrants in Hungary or foreign imperialism in Turkey or even internal groups like Kurdish terrorists in Syria or media coverage in the US - these attacks spur emotional responses that lead people towards believing and supporting one side over the other while dismissing evidence that contradicts them.

Lack of mutual respect makes constructive political debate impossible, making compromises on policies generally accepted by society all but impossible. This is how democracies collapse - with often catastrophic results.

Attentive citizens and political leaders can effectively reverse or at least moderate severe polarization by being mindful of its dynamics, rejecting demonizing rhetoric, and emphasizing democracy's ability and duty to address our modern-day challenges.

Researchers across various fields, such as political science, complex systems theory, and economics have collaborated on an investigation of polarization's causes and consequences. Their findings, published Dec 6 in PNAS through an agreement between Princeton University and Arizona State University, provide insight into its creation and maintenance.

What are the consequences of polarization?

Polarization restricts the scope of policies to be considered and threatens society's ability to function and deliver essential services. It shatters informal but essential norms of tolerance and moderation--such as conceding peacefully after electoral defeat--while also undermining judiciary independence, shrinking legislatures into gridlock or rubber stamping functions, bolstering presidential power, making manipulation of emotions simpler as well as demonizing and distrusting their opponents easier for leaders.

Polarization impedes productive dialogue by encouraging citizens to reject out of hand both flaws in their own views and the merits of opposing perspectives. Polarization may be driven by issues or ideologies; its severity measured by whether people move closer or farther from the median on particular issues or value sets.

Polarization leads individuals to overestimate the degree of political division; for example, they may perceive more division than actually exists and then react by distancing themselves from those with whom they disagree, further increasing polarization itself in an incessant cycle that undermines democracy and damages mental and physical health. Furthermore, this process hinders societies in understanding all of the challenges that they are confronting comprehensively, thus making solutions harder to come by.

What can be done about polarization?

Political polarization is an insidious trend that jeopardizes democracy. Its effects range from declining trust in institutions to disdain for facts and, at its extreme, violence. Unfortunately, reverse is an uphill battle when dealing with passionate supporters who care deeply about their causes and candidates.

To reduce polarization, we must understand what factors fuel it. Some are easy to address - such as decreasing access to biased news sources and social media platforms that reinforce existing beliefs and prejudices. Exposing people from diverse viewpoints also plays a vital role; research has demonstrated how it reduces polarization while simultaneously increasing cohesion.

Education can also provide a potential solution. According to studies, teaching students about the causes and triggers of polarization as well as discussing all sides of an issue in class can help them realize there may be more than one valid viewpoint on any given issue.

Social media platforms can play an invaluable role in combatting polarization by restricting their promotion of divisive content, providing users with accurate feedback on their own level of polarization, and testing algorithmic interventions that discourage people from connecting with individuals with more extreme views while encouraging those of moderate perspectives to connect more often with one another.

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