In American politics, “polarization” means that most Americans identify themselves either as strongly conservative or as not strongly conservative.
But this characterization masks what is really going on. The truth is far more dangerous to the country.
“Conservative or not conservative” is a statement about political policies. It implies that people who identify themselves in that way pay attention to policy statements and understand them.
We cannot overemphasize the importance of policy in politics. “Policy” is the application of politics to the real world. It is the translation of values into legislation and regulation. It is what a political party actually does when it is given power. Invariably, policy development is a complex intellectual activity and “policy wonks” consider themselves to be the intellectual elite of the civil service.
A political policy never fits into a ten second sound bite. It can’t even be shoehorned into a thousand-word newspaper article. Stating a policy requires a full-length White Paper that can be the size of a small novel.
It’s no surprise that voters do not understand policy development or the implications of different policy decisions. The best they can do is to look at comments about policies – invariably biased, self-serving misrepresentations of policies typically offered by those who oppose them.
Instead of grappling with the complexities of policy, voters treat politics like a sporting event. They pick a favorite team – the Republican or Democratic team – for reasons that have nothing to do with the team’s policies. Most often, the choose a team by whether they like the appearance and personality of the team’s stars, whether their friends support that team, and whether they have heard the other team called bad names.
People choose their favorite team when they are young and, once they have made their choice, they never change sides. It does not matter if they were mistaken about the teams policies; if their team changes policies; or if their own values change. Once they start rooting for their team and booing the other team in public, it becomes impossible for them to change their allegiance. What would their friends think of them?
All the evil forces from the dark side of psychology come into play. People suffer from selective attention to information that supports their position, misremember contradictory information, become overconfident in their opinions, falsely correlate independent events and do anything else required to confirm their support for their team. Worst of all, they harden their attitudes by arguing for their team, no matter how logical and reasonable the argument for the other side.
Once they identify with their team, they are lost to reason. They can no longer make any reasonable decision about their team’s policies because they automatically interpret whatever they hear or read to align with their pre-conceptions.
The problem is that politics is not a sport. If the wrong sports team wins, it’s over. You go off to the bar, down a few drinks with your buddies, and hope for better luck next year.
In politics, if the wrong team wins, your pain is just beginning. Your sons will be sent to die by the thousands in useless foreign wars; you will lose your job and home in an economic meltdown; your parents will die because they can’t afford health care; the police will be sent to take your freedom away. Politics is life and death. The wrong policies created the Nazi holocaust, the Irish potato famine, and China’s cultural revolution.
A few beers in a sports bar doesn’t provide any consolation for people who supported Hitler, Pol Pot, or Mugabe and lived to see the consequences of their team spirit.
If you think such things can’t happen in America, remember that in 1920, no American thought that the Great Depression could happen; in 1960, that the Vietnam War would kill 55,000 young American men; or in 2005, that millions of families would be evicted from their homes in the next few years.
Bad policies condemn millions of people to lives of misery.
American voters must stop thinking of politics as a sport and start thinking of it as a life and death struggle.
Americans must stop asking each other which party they support and start asking themselves which party supports them. Now. In this election and in the current circumstances. Because policies change, politicians change, and circumstances change. Changing your mind is called “learning” and it’s a good thing.
If Americans seek out fair assessments of government policies and are willing to change their vote in every election to support the politician that will enact the best policies, America will thrive.
If Americans persist in supporting their team, right or wrong, they will continue to suffer.
It’s as simple as that.