The Growth of Political Polarization

I find it incredibly challenging to talk to people who push back against ideas that I have that advocate for better treatment of minorities and women. I have not given much thought to white men whose social status may be diminished relative to women and minorities, but I have spent some time focused on race in terms of how we have historically treated black people in our country, and I am also acutely aware of how our society seems to favor men in business and political leadership over women. When I do hear someone push back against my views and advocate for mens rights or say that all lives matter, I am not able to speak with them as constructively as I would like. In situations where I do meet individuals with such views, I find that my natural reaction and inclination is to become entrenched, digging my feet in the sand and drawing a line that places me on the correct side of morality. What I effectively do however, is begin to polarize myself away from the other person.


David Sears and Michael Tesler identify the problem that I face in their book Obama’s Race. In their book they describe the ways in which Obama’s race could further polarize our nation, and their prediction from 2010 has largely shown to be an accurate prediction of the direction of our politics.


“Our results from the campaign could have profound implications for American partisan politics in the age of Obama. The most important political repercussion is that political decision making could become increasingly organized by racial attitudes in the years ahead. A number of findings suggest that this might occur. First, the two sides of radicalization are inherently polarizing. If racial liberals are more supportive of President Obama than they would be of an ideologically similar white Democratic president, and racial conservatives are more opposed to him than they would be absent his race, then public opinion should naturally be more divided by racial attitudes than ever.”


President Obama grew in popularity following a 2004 speech in which he claimed there was not a blue America and a red America, but just America, and he set out to unite the counry rather than build a coalition of one group against another. Unfortunately, his race polarized the country further than his politics alone. People like me, who argued that our country has not done enough to help advance people of color ran up against people who felt that our country was doing too much to help minorities get ahead without doing enough to help those who they believed represented true American values. Those who viewed Obama negatively felt that they were not being being rewarded for their efforts were asked to shoulder more of a burden and carry the weight of racial minorities who were given a hand-up that was not offered to white people.


I am worried because I don’t have a great solution at this point. I believe that the statistics regarding arrests of minorities and the statistics regarding median incomes of minorities and modern day segregation within our society are real. I don’t believe that advocating for programs that end up helping mostly minority populations or that make it easier for women to seek justice are programs that hurt white men, even if they diminish the relative social standing of white men. Perhaps what is important to do is make sure that we are honest about the intent of our policies. Rather than present our policies as being designed to help everyone (which I believe is largely true in most cases where policy encourages greater aid to a racial or gender minority) we should be honest and say that we want to specifically help the group that we want to help. At the same time perhaps we could be more honest about the impact of such policies on white people, and perhaps we could offer something that aids them as well.


Coming back to the quote from Tesler and Sears, I think it is important that people like me recognize when our actions further drive polarization. We must be aware of the times when we take a more favorable issue position position or stance toward an individual or group than we normally would take if there had not been some opposition to the position. This means we must be able to look critically at our stances and beliefs, and recognize that there are always going to be flaws and inequities in how we come together as a society to organize and use our resources.


I am still working to figure out how to have the challenging conversations with individuals who directly contradict my views in areas of racial and gender equity. I think the key is recognizing that such views can be polarizing since identity lays at the heart of the issue, and overly zealous support for a particular identity can be just as damaging as extreme opposition.

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