Political Polarization is the Single Greatest Threat to Our Democracy

‍How segregated are you from those who hold contrary political beliefs?

Studies show that we regularly self-sort ourselves into like-minded communities, choosing to exclusively eat, socialize, and live alongside other members of our own political group. Consequently, we now inculcate our worldviews alongside others who share our political values — often making us immediately unreceptive or hostile to members of other political parties.

Our physical health is at risk

It will come as absolutely no surprise to many of you that intense ideological radicalization is associated with drastically elevated stress levels. In just the two years immediately following the 2016 election, a significant number of Americans reported that discussing politics with people they disagree with became increasingly “stressful and frustrating” (especially among Democrats, where we saw a 12 percent increase between March 2016 and October 2018).

We’re actively undermining our own civic power

During the 1960 presidential campaign season, just 10 percent of political advertisements were negative. In 2012, just 14 percent of campaign ads were positive.

‍We struggle to solve even the most urgent national issues, even when we agree

So many of the hot-button issues we often perceive as most polarizing — like Second Amendment rights or immigration restrictions — are actually just the opposite. Surveys regularly highlight wide public consensus concerning what policies we should pursue; 90 percent of Americans support universal background checks for gun purchases, for instance, but both our gridlocked Congress and a media environment that treats gun issues as a zero-sum game continue to ignore that accord. On issue after issue, we’re closer to each other than we think we are, but radicalized polarization prevents us from recognizing that.

‍How am I expected to engage with someone who refuses my basic, fundamental right to exist?

Clearly, igniting cross-partisan conversation is a fraught endeavor. It’s difficult to reverse the disease that is tribalism, given the almost definitional complexity of connecting two individuals who have themselves chosen to segregate.

End gerrymandering and fight voter suppression

It’s common knowledge that gerrymandering is a problem. Democrats and Republicans alike rely heavily on it to preserve their organizational power, pre-ordaining primary elections with more minutely accurate data than ever before. When we allow states to draw their own districts, we allow politicians to choose exactly which voters they want to vote where — in other words, unaccountably dividing the electorate by ideology.

Open primaries to independent voters

Once, general elections were exciting; candidates fought until election day to convert as many voters as possible. Now, they’re preordained, lackadaisical displays of partisan power — gerrymandering-created ‘safe seats’ mean the winner of the primary is virtually guaranteed to win the general.

Implement ranked-choice voting

It’s time to implement ranked-choice voting (RCV). It just is. RCV solves existing problems with our fundamentally broken electoral system. It promotes majority support, discourages negative campaigning, provides voters with more choice, eliminates the ‘lesser of two evils’ decision, saves money — and confronts political polarization.

  1. In RCV campaigning, candidates do best when they reach out positively to as many voters as possible, including those supporting their opponents. Consequently, there are fewer negative ads attacking opponents — immediately improving our political culture.
  2. RCV allows more than two candidates to compete without fear of splitting the vote among like-minded individuals, emphasizing competition. Moreover, it eliminates the ‘lesser of two evils’ decision-making strategy — if a voter’s first choice is eliminated, their vote automatically transfers to their second choice.
  3. RCV is sometimes referred to as ‘instant runoff voting,’ since it allows two rounds of voting in a single, more representative, higher turnout election. Consequently, it can save a jurisdiction (or country) a lot of money, even as it helps promote majority rule.
  4. In a traditional American campaign, candidates need only appeal to their core constituency. In an RCV election, candidates need to demonstrate diversity of political viewpoint to engage a broader audience — promoting the representation of historically underrepresented groups and fighting polarizing radicalization.

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Nick Shereikis

Nick Shereikis

Hi! I’m Nick. I‘m interested in mental health, political polarization/rhetoric, and Manchester United — and I write sometimes. Learn more at nickshereikis.com.