It was June 16th, 1858. Abraham Lincoln, at a convention of 1,000 delegates, gave a speech in which he uttered one of his most famous sayings: “A house divided cannot stand.” This phrase was a warning relevant to the times; the country was intensely divided between the Republican North and the Democratic South on the issue of slavery. Just two years later, the Civil War would break out as the chaotic result of this division. Today, we are not nearly as divided as we once were, but a new division is growing. This time, it is not just a result of one issue, but instead it is a force pushing us apart on almost everything: partisan polarization. It has divided the people along ideological lines on everything from welfare to warfare to bathrooms, with compromise and civil discussion slowly disappearing in its wake. Many do not realize how expansive this divide is becoming, as it is now such a normal part of our daily lives. Yet this division is hurting us, whether you are a Republican or a Democrat, and this issue, more than any other, may be the most relevant to our country’s future.
In order to determine why this divide has become so large, we must ask: What’s causing it? There are a few factors. Demonization of opponents in politics and on news networks has increased, along with trust in government tanking from 70-80 percent in 1958 to 10-25 percent today. This frustration has contributed to the increased partisanship and reduced the number of people holding mixed viewpoints, which has dropped 10 percent over the past 12 years alone. The result? Eighty-two percent of people now hold mostly liberal or mostly conservative views. This means that the typical viewpoints for each party are drifting further apart. Support for compromise and cooperation is also decreasing. Distrust is being sown between party and populous, as 79 percent of Democrats and 82 percent of Republicans now have an unfavorable view of the other party. It is even causing outright hatred of the ‘other side,’ with 36 percent of Republicans and 27 percent of Democrats saying they view the other party as a threat to the well being of the nation. It goes without saying that it isn’t good for the people of a nation to be so divided. However, America has gone through periods of polarization on issues such as segregation before.
Why is today’s divide so special?
This division is more along party lines and less about actual issues. Because of this, the population grows more and more distrustful of the other party, and begins to actively dislike them solely because they ARE ‘them.’ People are far less likely to listen to ideas when they perceive them as coming from ‘the other side.’ Many go so far as to completely stop listening to anyone from the other party at all, instead dismissing them as misled idiots. Those people influence the next generation, their children, who will continue this closed state of mind for many years to come. Political polarization is closing people’s minds to new ideas and research, for fear that it is either ‘made up’ or will only benefit the other side’s ‘evil’ agenda.
Some of the people in the liberal or conservative circles counter that this distrust of information is not baseless, and that the other side is indeed using false or incomplete information to promote their agenda. Both sides, however, seem to conveniently forget that the information and studies on issues are out there in the open. Political parties, the government, and people alike are picking and choosing facts, studies, and even friends that only reinforce their own viewpoints. Around half of liberals and conservatives have close friends who share all their political views. We are humans after all; we like to be proven right, even if that means segregating ourselves into ideological camps.
It is disgraceful that more and more people today are choosing to prove themselves right and blindly follow party ideologies instead of forming opinions for themselves, and it is only making the problem worse. We don’t want to be a nation of followers, of people who believe something just because we are told to believe it. Throughout 200-plus years of history, Americans have come to agreement on issues that previously divided them, and although at times painful, it has moved us forward. This nation is a melting pot of ideas, not just people. So we must agree to disagree. Instead of putting down other people’s views just because you don’t care for their politics, listen to them. Be open to new ideas and new research, not just the things a party line feeds you. Change starts with the American people. Maybe it’s time we change ourselves.
By Sam Hodman