By eschewing parties, apartisans and independents more generally have deferred to others one critical part of deeply engaging the political world. The work of picking a side and fighting for its agenda. The work of advocating for one’s party and attacking its critics.
And so we have embraced – consciously or unconsciously – the quintessentially American idea that James Madison expressed so eloquently in The Federalist Papers:
…By comprehending in the society so many separate descriptions of citizens as will render an unjust combination of a majority of the whole very improbable, if not impracticable…Whilst all authority in [the republic] will be derived from and dependent on the society, the society itself will be broken into so many parts, interests, and classes of citizens, that the rights of individuals, or of the minority, will be in little danger from interested combinations of the majority (Federalist #51).
We have trusted in this logic that the contest of interests in the political arena by those who are more motivated than ourselves to participate in such activity will minimize the worst possible effects of politics. Their efforts will cancel themselves out, limit the formation of a tyrannical majority, and hopefully result in policies that benefit all of us.
Except in recent years we have found this logic to be flawed and this hope to be misplaced. All of those diverse interests Madison refers to have combined into two super-factions – the Democratic and Republican Parties – that are just short of war with one another. Each seeks to wipe out the other and achieve total victory, and in many states they have nearly achieved this goal (in 2019, the governorships and both houses of the legislatures in nearly three-quarters of the states became controlled by a single party).
And once in power, they pursue policies that benefit their constituencies with little consideration for those who support the other party. Whether it is tax law, environmental regulation, immigration policy, or healthcare programs, both parties increasingly dismiss their opposition and ignore their concerns. They are dedicated to helping their own, and stopping everyone else, no matter the consequences.
We are now living through these consequences – the worst pandemic in 100 years, the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, and the worst civil unrest since the 1960s. Violence in the streets between partisans is now commonplace in the media, and it only promises to worsen in the coming months.
How did we get to this point? Lots of reasons, but one way to think about these consequences is a process of polarization that has involved five phases. Click below to learn more about the “5 Ds of Polarization.”