In Praise of Political Polarization

by Dr. Les Sillars
May 12, 2010

Dr. Les Sillars directs the Journalism Program at Patrick Henry College. Besides his duties at PHC, Dr. Sillars is Mailbag Editor at WORLD magazine and a Contributing Editor at Salvo magazine. Read full bio.

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The polarization of government is defining our era, according to a February essay in TIME. The article entitled “Why Washington is Tied Up in Knots,” by Peter Beinart, a professor at City University of New York, states: “In the country at large, the disputes are real but manageable. But in Washington, crossing party lines to resolve them has become excruciatingly rare.”

Beinart goes on to write:

From health care to energy to the deficit, addressing the U.S.'s big challenges requires vigorous government action. When government doesn't take that action, it loses people's faith. And without public faith, government action is harder still. Call it Washington's vicious circle.

Indiana Senator Evan Bayh, a Democrat, agrees, having recently announced his retirement because he believes Congress is broken. In a New York Times column, he wrote that “action on the deficit, economy, energy, health care and much more is imperative, yet our legislative institutions fail to act. Congress must be reformed.”

The manifold causes of this polarization include: strident partisanship, unyielding ideology, a corrosive system of campaign financing, endless filibusters, holds on executive appointees in the Senate, dwindling social interaction between senators of opposing parties and a caucus system that promotes party unity at the expense of bipartisan consensus.

The conservative knee-jerk reaction to complaints about polarization is that “gridlock is good.” The country is evenly divided on key issues, so Congress should be also. Moreover, governments that can't do anything can't do anything stupid or harmful.

There's a certain appeal to that logic, but the complaint, and a real conservative response, is more nuanced. Progressives are not merely complaining because they can't get their agenda moving (although that is surely a factor), but that polarization prevents legislators from doing even necessary things for which there might be a genuine consensus among Americans.

Conservatives can recognize some truth in this. The refusal even to listen to opposing ideas and the deterioration of civility in public life are deplorable.

On the other hand, most would recognize that polarization forces advocates of policies to come up with compelling arguments that withstand even the closest scrutiny from ideological and political opponents. These arguments must be able to withstand the kinds of treatment most ideas get in today's rancorous political climate. Polarization is clearly a factor in preventing substantive American action on global warming, for example, even in spite of the increasingly discredited “overwhelming consensus” forged among so-called experts.

Is polarization preventing legitimate government action? Perhaps, but there are many examples of good policies that went forward because they were popular, even during times of extreme rancor. Congress passed one of its most successful initiatives in recent memory, welfare reform, during a time Beinart identifies as one of the most highly polarized in recent history, the Clinton administration.

Polarization can also clarify issues and the worldviews driving the issues. When moderates dominate the political arena, when confrontation is restrained in the interest of civility, it's easier to build consensus but it becomes more difficult for citizens to figure out what's going on.

Until anti-slavery “extremists” like William Wilberforce started to push the issue, few people saw a problem with slavery. The slavery debate in 18th and 19th century England was surely “polarizing” and “divisive,” and public discourse grew even more so as public opinion approached the tipping point. But in the end Wilberforce and the Clapham Group helped British society see slavery for what it is—an abomination. Polarization, in that light, was merely a middle stage in a journey that the West needed to make.

Washington is now “tied up in knots,” as Beinart put it, over health care reform, abortion, gay rights, and many other issues. But which is better: to forge ahead with a consensus based on false premises and bad information, propped up with a superficial civility that discourages frank discussion, or to tolerate a stalemate until one side or the other makes a truly compelling case that convinces a substantial majority of citizens?

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