The political divide between liberals and conservatives in America seems to be growing wider everday. Escalating partisanship and political polarization, on both governmental and social levels, has come to dominate modern American politics. This divide has turned politics into a game of sorts, reducing our ability to empathize with people on the other side of the political spectrum.
According to Gallup polls, the partisan gap in many topical political issues has widened in recent years. As of 2001, 15 percent more Democrats than Republicans believed U.S. gun laws should be stricter, but by 2016 that gap grew to 43 percent — the difference increased by 28 points. Similar widenings occurred for other partisan issues: between 2000 and 2017, the gap between Democrats and Republicans who “worry” about climate change grew by 35 points. Gallup also found that from 2002 and 2016, the difference between Democrats and Republicans who believe the federal government has too much power grew by a staggering 44 points. Many of the country’s most pressing issues, like immigration, healthcare, abortion and taxes, follow similar patterns.
This polarization is due in part to both sides’ unwillingness to compromise. Many issues, like those listed above, seem black and white. When it comes to abortion, the right thinks we must protect the rights of unborn children while the left thinks we must protect the autonomy and health of women. The poles seem irreconcilable and as congressional gridlock, filibusters and government shutdowns prove, compromises are few and far between.
This worsening polarization also exists on personal levels. Pew Research Center found that, as of 2014, 79 percent of Democrats have unfavorable views of Republicans, and 82 percent of Republicans have unfavorable views of Democrats. A 2009 survey of married couples found that only nine percent had married across party lines, according to a Stanford University study.
The same Stanford study says that, in this country, there is social stigma preventing most people from being blatantly racist or sexist. However, no comparable stigma exists surrounding overt political partisanship. In fact, political leaders’ rhetoric often encourages such partisanship. Consider Hillary Clinton’s 2016 quote saying that half of Donald Trump’s supporters could go into a “basket of deplorables,” or Trump’s quote from last month that called Democrats “an angry, left-wing mob,” both reported by Time.
Pew Research Center suggests that ideological echo chambers can exacerbate polarization. Echo chambers are environments crafted in a way that one’s political opinions are constantly being validated, be it by peers, friends or the news sources we choose to subscribe to.
Arthur Brooks, a writer for The New York Times, wrote an article about this concept. “We can… choose universities and design our news exposure in a way that feeds ideological ghettoization and identity politics,” Brooks wrote. Doing so, he argued, “separates us as people and reduces others (and thus ourselves) to disembodied demographic characteristics.” In other words, intense polarization reduces our tolerance and empathy for people on the other end of the political spectrum, causing us to forget that our political foes are indeed humans, and have identities and backgrounds as complex as our own.
At its most extreme, intolerance can lead to hate crimes, border walls and wars. Yet on a more daily level, intolerance can make us resistant to respect any views that conflict with our own. We tend to immediately dismiss one’s opinions just because that person subscribes to political opinions different from ours.
This is not to say that hatred, racism, sexism, xenophobia and other harmful consequences of certain political beliefs should be tolerated. However, it is important to approach most political dissonance with empathy and understanding. Why does that person of your opposite party think the way they do? Is it to do with their upbringing? Their religious beliefs? Their education?
Actively fostering tolerance in politics can allow us to empathize with more people, and thereby understand opinions and perspectives different from our own. We must be more willing to open dialogues, even with those who might not agree with us. Only then will we be able to see people on the other side of the political spectrum as just that: people.