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Looking for the causes of polarization

By Staff | Jul 9, 2012

If you celebrated the founding of America on July 4th, I am compelled to ask you for an explanation. We have become a country of such malcontents and ingrates that I wonder if there is anything good to celebrate. In fact, we have turned our great democracy into a divided, uncivil society.

According to Noah Webster, civil means “adhering to the norms of polite social intercourse; not deficient in common courtesy.”

Our lack of common courtesy undergirds the political polarization gripping public affairs, making it impossible to have a calm dialogue about the issues of the day. Our 3-branch system of government requires deliberation and compromise. Today, we have neither.

Most people seem to believe that Congress is at fault. That is not true. This is a democracy and in a democracy the attitudes of the electorate are reflected by the policymakers. A polarized uncivil Congress must mean a polarized uncivil populace.

Washington Columnist Dan Balz, reviewing a report from the Pew Research Center, observed that “polarization in Washington is not just politicians behaving badly. It reflects on what is happening around the country. Partisanship has grown dramatically and shows no sign of abating in the near future.”

The Pew report compared Republicans and Democrats on 48 issues and found that the gap between the parties had more than doubled over the past 25 years. Republicans have become more conservative and Democrats have become more liberal.

In a September poll, the Gallup organization asked: “If the leaders of our nation followed the views of the public more closely, do you think the nation would be better off, or worse off than it is today?” Three-fourths of the respondents thought the country would be better off.

We are in the current policymaking mess because the polarized public is being heard and this polarization is being reflected by our leaders. Stated in classic Pogo wisdom: “We have met the enemy and they is us.”

It is one thing for Pew to quantify the gap between Republicans and Democrats but another to identify the root causes. Pew’s figures just document the degree of polarization.

The separation of powers at the national level, the high cost of campaigns, the selling of candidates to raise campaign funds, the mean-spirited smear campaigns, and the irresponsible electronic media system all contribute to the polarization and lack of civility.

While all of these have escalated partisanship, there must be a root cause in the psyche of Americans to explain the need to move to the radical left and radical right. I submit that this is happening because we are in the grips of universal anxiety and fear.

Just look at the litany of circumstances that can cause fear. The destruction of the Trade Towers left us feeling vulnerable to enemy attack as never before; the collapse and stagnation of the economy have pensioners and investors on edge.

The bursting of the housing bubble caused millions to lose their savings; the unsustainability of Medicare has millions of seniors in fear of losing medical care; unemployment is rampant and most jobs are gone forever, and with the decline of unions, workers have little job security.

The erosion of moral values frightens many Christians; the national debt darkens our future. According to Gallup, 60 percent of Americans have concluded that the next generation will not have it as good as the present generation.

Combine these concerns and we shouldn’t be surprised that fear is driving much of the incivility and polarization in the public and its elected representatives. We are desperately fighting back as best we can.

Franklin Roosevelt was probably right. “All we have to fear is fear itself.”

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