The True Cost of Political Polarization

After World War II, aid provided to Europe, helped these countries recover and develop into the prosperous union they are today.  However, despite over a trillion dollars of aid to Africa over the past 60 years, many African countries and their citizens remain in deep poverty.  There are a number of reasons for this discrepancy, but one of the primary drivers is their instability and the ubiquity of civil clashes. Over the past 20 years, 11 countries have been involved in civil war, but even this is an improvement from its peak in the 1980s and 1990s.

However, even within the peaceful countries, for example Ethiopia, which hasn’t experienced a civil war since 1991, competition breeds instability.  This competition is motivated not just by leaders vying for power, but by a fragmented and polarized population.  Subsequently political parties are unable to mobilize their citizens to achieve a common good.  According to Merera Gudina, an associate professor in Political Science and International Relations at Addis Ababa University:

“Conspiracy and political intrigues have become the hallmark of the Ethiopian political parties and their leaders with the resultant effect of frustration, disillusionment and demobilization of the common folks across the country. To put differently, political leaders are more active in undermining coalitions than alliance building while their vision is blurred to aggregate societal interests for a broader national development goals”

The above quote could just as easily be written about the current state of U.S. politics (and also to Canadian and European Politics).  A cursory glance at the news reveals dozens of cases of hypocrisy where Republicans fight against Democrats (and vice-versa), only to reverse or ignore their own demands when it serves them.  For instance, just recently, Senate Majority Leader, Mitch McConnell, who requested a complete ethics vetting and financial disclosures of cabinet nominees, only to dismiss the same concerns when applied to Trump’s cabinet.

The debt ceiling, blocking the supreme court nomination, the list could go on and on. Perhaps the most stressing example was the response to the Affordable Health Care act.  The U.S. suffered (and continues to suffer) from ballooning costs, uninsured Americans, and a general inefficient system of health care. However, the reluctance and general lackadaisical motivation to join the rest of the first world in developing a universal health care system could have worked in their ultimate benefit.  By studying the numerous systems in place, the U.S. could have learned from other countries’ mistakes and built a well-oiled health care system.

And yet, at every turn, the Republicans sabotaged the ACA. From refusing to expand Medicaid, to declining to create state insurance exchanges, and even blocking improvements when weaknesses were exposed, the Republicans have invested a great deal of time and money in an attempt to publicize misinformation and ensure a disastrous implantation, even comparing the ACA to slavery and suggesting that it allows patients to come to doctors’ houses and conscript them.  A much needed system that could have been a bipartisan olive branch to a hurting population became so polarized that even those who benefited demonized it.  In an attempt to damage the reputation of Barack Obama and the Democrats, the Republicans made millions of Americans suffer.

Or consider the complete lack of concern by Republicans with regards to Putin and Russia’s involvement in the election.  Just imagine for a moment, particularly if you are a Republican reading this, what one would have thought, said, and done, if Hillary had won the election and the same information came out suggesting that Putin had been helping her? Would Republicans have been so easily dismissive? Or would they have subjugated Clinton and the Democrats to dozens of hearings, as they had done with Benghazzi?

As I was writing this, a new bombshell was released, which has suggested that Russia has compromising and salacious personal information about Trump and subsequently may have been using this information to influence or blackmail him.  These reports remain unsubstantiated and so the only thing we should do is to remain vigilante and wait for more information.

Yet the polarization is already in full swing, with Trump opponents confident in their assertion of Trump as Putin’s puppet, while Trump supporters denying these allegations as a political witch hunt. No matter the outcome, this hurts the U.S. democracy.  If the allegations turn out to be untrue,  Trump supporters will have more reason to dismiss future concerns, regardless of how legitimate, while Trump opponents will likely hold some residual belief of Trump as a Russian co-opted President. On the other hand, If the allegations are verified, Trump opponents will have even greater reason for dismissing the concerns and preferences of rural America, while Trump supporters will have to somehow come to terms with the fact that they have been duped by an obvious con-man.  It is frightening that in light of unsubstantiated allegations, Trump opponents were willing to immediately disavow the leadership of their country, while Trump supporters were completely unwilling to consider them.

But it doesn’t have to be this way.  Indeed, for many years, it was not. In 1964, 27 Republicans joined 44 Democrats to help pass the Civil Rights Act.  Bipartisanship collaboration allowed the creation of NASA, which led to Neil Armstrong landing on the moon in 1969.  Democrats joined Richard Nixon and the Republicans to develop the Endangered Species Act in 1973.  When bipartisan support cannot be reached, there can at least be compromise.  For example, in 1986 Democrats favored simplifying the system and eliminating loopholes, Republicans favored treating capital gains and investment income the same as regular income (which was changed in 2003).

Congress polarization images adapted from here

Almost everyone wants the same thing.  They want a life of liberty, security, and justice. There may be different paths to achieve them and trade-offs or compromises are sometimes required.  But there are better and worse solutions, and those solutions rarely exist polarized on one end of the political spectrum.

During last night’s Farewell speech by President Obama, he echoed these ideas, far more eloquently than I could:

“Our founders quarreled and compromised, and expected us to do the same. But they knew that democracy does require a basic sense of solidarity – the idea that for all our outward differences, we are all in this together; that we rise or fall as one.”

“None of this is easy.  For too many of us, it’s become safer to retreat into our own bubbles, whether in our neighborhoods or college campuses or places of worship or our social media feeds, surrounded by people who look like us and share the same political outlook and never challenge our assumptions.  The rise of naked partisanship, increasing economic and regional stratification, the splintering of our media into a channel for every taste – all this makes this great sorting seem natural, even inevitable.  And increasingly, we become so secure in our bubbles that we accept only information, whether true or not, that fits our opinions, instead of basing our opinions on the evidence that’s out there.

“How do we excuse ethical lapses in our own party, but pounce when the other party does the same thing?  It’s not just dishonest, this selective sorting of the facts; it’s self-defeating.  Because as my mother used to tell me, reality has a way of catching up with you.”

Ultimately, the path forward is not always straight. The movement and progress of a society are like settlers exploring new terrain. Sometimes there will be arguments on the best path to take and sometimes you’ll take the wrong one.  But as long as the ultimate goals are the same, everyone moving together will always be better than some people holding the others back.


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