Why we are so polarized

A man opens fire on a crowd in front of a grocery store; six are dead and 13 more are wounded.  A quick and easy explanation that somehow blames a political enemy would be nice, right?  Not so fast…

doc4d290f6a042817218110492This discussion got jump-started last week after the Tucson shootings thanks to the rampant news media speculation that accused gunman Jared Loughner was encouraged in this crime by violent rhetoric from the political right.  It turns out, most Americans aren’t buying: in a CBS News poll nearly 60% say there is no connection at all.

But Loughner is mentally disturbed, and according to his friends his view of the world, and his imagined grudge against Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, were influenced by extremist conspiracy theories (read about a couple of them here and here).  And so, some argue, Loughner is responsible for the crime but was influenced by a world in which violent rebellion against those who would hijack “our America” is seen as an heroic act.

…if you decide to go kill a bunch of innocent people, it’s a pretty safe bet that you’re not a picture of mental health. But that doesn’t sever the link between you and the people who inspired you, or insulate them from responsibility.

The quote is from Robert Wright’s Opinionator blog entry on Tuesday about the growing demonization of “the other” in our society.  He makes the point that any demagogue can whip up a fear frenzy among the gullible, that today’s technology allows each of us to shield ourselves from any competing point of view if we choose to, and that it’s easy to think the worst of people “you never communicate with, and whose views you never see depicted by anyone other than their adversaries.”

It feels true: most of us rarely discuss political issues with people who hold different views.  There seems to be no common ground from which to start a discussion, no one wants to hear what the other side has to say, and we end up beating each other over the head with talking points rather than exchanging ideas.

Paul Krugman attributes this to a deep divide in American political morality:

When people talk about partisan differences, they often seem to be implying that these differences are petty, matters that could be resolved with a bit of good will. But what we’re talking about here is a fundamental disagreement about the proper role of government.

He does a good job identifying the roots of today’s ballistic political tone, attributing it to a morally-based difference of opinion about what is appropriate, or constitutional, for our government to be doing.  A disagreement stemming from moral belief, as Krugman believes this one is, would be a disagreement not easily reconciled.

That doesn’t give us permission to stop talking to each other, or stop trying to find common ground, or to subtly encourage violent means to win the moral struggle.  Because then nobody wins.