We, as Americans, cherish the freedom and right to disagree—which we do, often deeply about important issues that need resolution. But polarization undermines that freedom by tightening prejudices rather than opening thought, thus diminishing the chances for finding resolutions and moving forward. So while polarization may feel like a righteous champion of freedom and right, it is in fact just the opposite—a stick jammed in the spokes of the democratic discourse of freedom. Here are some of the common ways it does it:
- SEDUCES with loaded, heated language and childish name-calling that appeals more to emotion that reason.
- BLINKERS by using cherry-picked facts, and ignoring or mocking opposing arguments and evidence rather than actually addressing them.
- TRIVIALIZES by focusing on “straw-man” issues whose value in re-enforcing biases is clearly greater than their substance.
- BULLIES by making you feel like a dupe or a traitor if you even listen to the other side.
- FLATTERS with language and a tone that makes you feel like an insider, who, of course, agrees with them because you “get it” … just like they do.
- FRIGHTENS by portraying the other side as not just wrong, but a dangerous, evil enemy, replete with wicked hidden agendas.
- “CLANS,” that is, plays the “us vs. them” identity politics game of associating the other view with groups or people (implicitly) “inferior” to “us.”
- “TRIBES” by using the knowing winks and nods of sarcasm, coded language, words in quotes (suggesting they’re misleading) and innuendo which you, as a member of the tribe, of course, will understand without explanation or justification.
This week…with President Trump’s declaration of emergency it got serious. Not the polarizing rhetoric, of course, but the issue at hand. I don’t know the detailed history of the 1976 National Emergency Act. But I do know that it was the “emergency” loophole that gave Hitler the legal power to initially suspend the Weimar constitution. And we all know where that lead.
This is not to say we’re now on the road to the 4th Reich or that Trump is a Hitler wannabe. But it does serve a reminder that the essential difference between autocrats and democrats is that while the former can do what they want, the latter are forced to compromise—to reconcile their desires with the opposition. And that the real caution is not whether a given leader is a closet dictator, but to remember that We the People are all susceptible to the lure of the dictator…as long as he/she is saying something we like. Who, after all, wouldn’t love to stand strong and run roughshod over someone who is “clearly wrong” and threatening the virtues and values we hold dear, rather than tarnishing our principles with compromise? Yet the exact bargain we strike when we accept the freedoms of democracy is to reject that thrilling rush of power, and accept the fact that we will sometimes lose battles extremely dear to us.
Congress, the broadly elected representative of our varied voices and views, is where the Constitution said that bargain is supposed to be acted out. But inch by inch, we have allowed the arrogance and emotions of polarization and the cowardice of politicians to slowly cede the democratic sovereignty of the people (Congress) to the unelected authority of courts (or to the the concentrated power of the Presidency). And we’ve loved it…as long as they decided in our favor. (Just as I’m sure, the slavocrats celebrated Dredd Scott). But we should recognize that every time we let the courts (or a loophole circumventing Congress) decide for us, we give up some of our freedoms — our sovereignty — in favor of the quick, efficient, power of a “right thinking” unelected authority: aka, the dictator.
So while we are fist-pumping Dirty Harry as he cuts through the crap and gets justice done, let’s not fool ourselves into thinking that that short-term victory is without long term cost. Or that the real worry is which leader yearns for dictatorial power. (They all do). The real worry is that all of us, in part, are susceptible to the lure of the benevolent dictator who will do the “right thing,” efficiently, clearly, powerfully. Which is why the cause of deflating the emotional pull of polarization is not just about restoring polite behavior or getting things done. It is about preserving freedom.
When reading these examples, check the above list and ask yourself: regardless of whether you agree or disagree, is this really advancing an intelligent resolution through the persuasive, rational arguments of advocacy…or simply fueling the fire of conflict through the divisive, emotional manipulations of polarization?
Here are just a few of the blue and red polarizing headlines from the past week.