The Stateswoman Archive

Polarized Discussions Deepen Political Divisions

By Katherine Cramer Walsh, Ph.D.

Partisan polarization gets a lot of attention these days. Rightly so. In our own state legislature, we see bitter divisions between Republicans and Democrats. The national government looks much the same. Votes are split on party lines, and State of the Union and State of the State addresses are visual displays of the lack of legislation that both Republican and Democratic lawmakers jointly applaud.

Evenly split legislatures are not necessarily a problem. Our representative institutions were designed in anticipation of competing views with the hope that deliberation amongst the members would result in sound decisions.

But polarization is not the same as competition, and we have reason to believe it is a bad thing for democracy. When parties polarize, members of the public are less trusting of their government. When people lack trust in their government, they are less likely to be interested and involved in public affairs.

Despite the harmful effects of polarization for civic life, a lack of civil discussion across partisan lines might seem a distant issue. But political divides are not simply the creation of politicians. They are perpetuated and sharpened through the course of our own day-to-day interactions.

I recently had the privilege to study informal political conversation among several groups of people who met regularly in neighborhood gathering places. The group with which I spent the most time was a group of retired white men who met every morning in a coffee shop. Over a three-year period, I observed them talking about politics together.

Like most of us, they had many things to discuss besides politics. But about every other day, someone would bring up an issue related to government or politicians and they would chat about it together. When they did so, they often referred to their social identities, or their ideas of who “we” are. The gist of these messages took the form of “people like us should think this,” or “we can support this candidate because he is someone like us.”

The opportunity to have these kinds of conversations is valuable for democracy. Through visiting with each other over the topic of politics, they clarified their stances on issues and how elections and public policy matters for their lives. It can also be mobilizing. When people talk and recognize the concerns that they have in common, they may decide to take action, such as going to a polling place together, starting a petition drive, or maybe even organizing a march.

But democracy needs more than like-minded people talking to each other. We also need to engage the other side. The men I studied sat across the room from a smaller group of regulars who were quite different from them. Some of the folks in this other group were African Americans, some were female, and almost all worked blue-collar jobs. Although the two groups were friendly with one another, they rarely interacted.

Birds of a feather may flock together, but when humans do the same the result is that we reinforce and perpetuate boundaries. As we clarify our social identities through talking with people we think are like us, we neglect to challenge ourselves. Without encountering different perspectives we lose the chance to enlarge our own and others’ points of view.

The broader good loses out as well. If democracy truly is government by the people, this means that we are governing each other. We don’t need to all see the world or specific issues the same way. However, in order to avoid trampling the rights of the people whom our decisions affect, we do need to make some attempt to become aware of their experiences and concerns.

As our communities become increasingly racially heterogeneous, and income inequality surges, we have more divisions to be attentive to than simply those of partisanship. Our current political leaders tend not to engage each other. We could wait for them to change. Or we could make an attempt to do it ourselves.

This could take many forms. First, there is the tool of casual conversation. Starting an informal discussion about politics takes courage. The short-term risk is offending someone or getting your own toes stepped on. But I believe the longer-term risk of a democratic society in which the supposed self-governing members can’t communicate with one another is greater.

In many communities, local governments and nonprofit organizations have organized dialogue programs in which diverse groups of volunteers get together to participate in facilitator-led discussion over a period of several months about issues like race relations, immigration, schools and crime. In Madison, and Kenosha/Racine, for example, these discussions have taken place in public places like schools and churches. In St. Louis and Dallas, these conversations take place over dinner in someone’s home.

Another of the many possibilities is to use art to help us become aware of the experiences of others in our communities. Stories and drama can convey perspectives that we haven’t had the luxury to directly experience. Pictures and music can describe what words can not. Beyond bringing us together physically, our museums, libraries, theaters and concert halls have the potential to bring us closer to mutual understanding.

Talking about politics is commonly regarded as impolite. This is ironic. If we want our communities to be polite-if we want them to be places in which we respect one another and are not polarized into opposing corners— failing to communicate about the public issues that affect our lives is not the way to go about it.

Katherine Cramer Walsh, Ph.D., is assistant professor of political science at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Her primary research and teaching interests include public opinion, political communication and political psychology.

This article first appeared in the March 2004 issue of the Wisconsin Women’s Network’s Newsletter, The Stateswoman.