The Harm of Political Polarization

Ilana Quinn

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When the prolific Supreme Court Justice and feminist figure Ruth Bader Ginsburg passed away on September 18, 2020, I wanted to learn more about the life she led and the positive ways in which she affected the world. As a female lawyer in the 1960s and 70s, Bader Ginsburg was instrumental in advocating for the end of gender discrimination in areas including the military and the general workforce.

Scrolling through YouTube videos one morning, I discovered something rather unexpected about the late renowned civil servant. She was close personal friends with Antonin Scalia: an Italian-American Catholic Supreme Court Justice.

Besides their religious and cultural differences — Bader Ginsburg was a self-described non-observant Jew — the two were idealogical opposites. Scalia was famously conservative, viewing the Constitution through the lens of “originalism,” where the document is interpreted according to how the original writers intended it to be understood. More liberal interpretations perceive the Constitution as a “living document,” where the document is thought to develop overtime according to changing circumstances.

To us, it seems unimaginable for a person who supported Roe v. Wade: the 1973 decision to make abortion legal, to befriend another who was in favour of restricting abortion. Today, few of us can discuss abortion without the conversation erupting into a tirade of name-calling and degrading epithets from both sides. The issue is deeply emotional for multiple reasons. But the aforementioned scenario is what unfolded in reality.

The YouTube video I watched was equal parts lighthearted and profoundly moving. As Justice Bader Ginsberg’s provided a eulogy at Justice Scalia’s memorial service, the former painted a vivid image of an enduring friendship between two brilliant people with paradoxical political perspectives. And yet, neither individual cared any less about their idealogical stances, regardless of befriending a so-called adversary.

In one of the most memorable lines from the video, Bader Ginsburg quoted from Scalia when he was asked about their friendship. He answered: “I don’t attack people, I attack ideas.”

The words struck me.

So often, we insult and belittle people who disagree with us. Many times, the issues we are discussing are of great importance, prompting us to vilify the person on the other end of the debate because the thing we are arguing is so core to our political affiliation, and subsequently, a key piece of our identity. The friendship between Scalia and Bader Ginsburg proves healthy interactions do not rely on idealogical alignment — rather, they depend on our willingness to see others as what they are: human beings.

Age of polarization

In 1992, most counties in the United States were politically heterogenous, meaning they were home to inhabitants of varying political beliefs. Today, American counties are politically homogenous. Political conservatives are more likely to live in an area dominated by other conservatives, whereas liberals live in regions concentrated with other progressives. As a result, members of both groups are surrounded by those who share the same beliefs as them, leading to the creation of political echo chambers. Psychologically speaking, when people spend more time with those who share their views, those perspectives are reinforced.

Political echo chambers are unhealthy. They do not prompt us to question or challenge our beliefs — which is problematic when it comes to erroneous belief systems. Worse still, they lead us into vilifying those with beliefs that differ from ours. In these echo chambers, we swallow false stereotypes about opposing groups since we possess no experience to suggest otherwise. We also become more extreme in our thinking.

Political echo chambers exist not only in physical regions. They can also result from social media, where algorithms on Facebook, Twitter and other platforms recommend posts aligning with an individual’s political leanings. With most millennials and Gen Zers relying on various social media channels to keep up with current events, political echo chambers have become a tangible problem, making it easier for political adversaries to dehumanize one another.

Think of a person who only ever watches Fox News. Because this famously right-leaning news channel spins stories with a distinct conservative slant, it is likely the regular viewer will become more extreme in their views. This phenomenon is known to psychologists as “confirmation bias,” where individuals pursue information that confirms their previously held beliefs. In the end, we all fall into this trap every time we switch on the television or scroll through Facebook.

Furthermore, if all a conservative or liberal knows of their political opponents derives from the media they consume regularly, their negative perceptions of the other side will continue unimpeded, leaving us more polarized than ever.

Love thy neighbour as thyself

In Jerusalem about two millennia ago, a Jewish rabbi from a little place called Nazareth was teaching a crowd of people as He walked through the temple courts. Among them were Pharisees: members of the upper echelons of Jewish religious life who separated themselves from the rest of society to study and teach the Mosaic Law.

Because Jesus of Nazareth, the Jewish rabbi, was a threat to the religious authorities — He was performing miracles, teaching through parables and claiming to be the Messiah — the Pharisees “tested Him with a question” (Matthew 22:35). They asked what the greatest commandment is.

Jesus answered:

‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.’

Regardless of religious affiliation, many invoke Jesus’s words when defending the most marginalized in society — though we sadly fall short of this golden rule all the time. The aphorism love your neighbour as yourself, or variations of it, long ago entered the collective lexicon, remaining a fixture in many cultures to this day. We had a sign with the words in my very secular public school.

Unfortunately, we disregard the second greatest commandment when it comes to our political enemies. We view them as inferior to us, rather than acknowledging their common humanity and the things that bind us together. But Jesus’s words apply to all people, not just those we agree with.

Final thoughts

It is incredibly hard to love those who possess beliefs — political and otherwise — that seem contrary to ours. But loving another does notmean excusing their destructive behaviour or becoming the best of friends, like Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Antonin Scalia were. Nor does it mean abandoning your political convictions and becoming a centrist.

Instead, loving our neighbours results from the shared understanding that none of us are perfect. Our political persuasions are not stagnant as we continue to change and grow. Despising someone on account of their political affiliation will never encourage them to see your point of view.

If you are a Christian, you know we are all created in the image and likeness of God — treasured and loved by Him beyond all comprehensible measure. Despite our countless mistakes and faults, He choses every one of us — as He did that fateful day on the Cross.

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A student writing about faith, mental health, history, literature, politics and travel.

Los Angeles, CA
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