The Polarization Problem is Bigger than It Seems, and So is the Solution
By David Stebenne
The polarized American political system of today is only part of a larger story. Since the mid-1960’s, the country as a whole has become more divided, economically, politically, socially and culturally. A few examples should suffice to make that clear. First, income and wealth distribution have become more polarized since then. Second, the gap between the Democrats and the Republicans on fundamental issues has widened, too. Third, social-cultural gaps have widened in many areas, from patterns of family formation to attitudes toward religion and even popular entertainment. All of these developments are related, and they have become mutually reinforcing.
Even so, efforts to address polarization’s consequences for the political and electoral system are hardly hopeless. What’s needed, though, is to see polarization there in a larger context, and to frame efforts at reform accordingly. A plan for political and electoral reform is needed of course, but in order to work it must involve more than government officials.
One way to do that is to disseminate whatever conclusions about political and electoral reform are developed to a wide range of organized interest groups in society. Such groups can and must contribute to a national conversation about diminishing polarization generally, and within the political system in particular. Some will say that sounds utopian, but outside of Washington’s political community, the interest of the citizenry in finding more common ground appears real.
This sort of thing has been done before in the United States. One noteworthy example is the American Assembly approach developed by Dwight Eisenhower in 1950 when he was serving as the President of Columbia University. The American Assembly brought together representatives of business, labor, farm groups, professions such as law and medicine, the two major political parties, and government for an annual conference on an important public issue, such as the U.S. relationship with western Europe, inflation, and economic security. After each conference, the assembly made the papers presented available to the media and provided discussion guides and pamphlets for use by “little American Assemblies” around the country and other interested civic groups.
The point here is that the conclusions of a commission on reform in the political and electoral system should be transmitted not just to Congress and/or the President, but also to the organs of American civil society more generally. They can help with this project, and in so doing, become more involved in reducing polarization generally.
David Stebenne is a professor of history and law at Ohio State University, and a member of the Election Law Group at the Moritz College of Law.
We asked academic experts, political scientists, historians, pollsters and policy analysts to contribute to an expert forum on this subject. In several days, we will contribute more public opinion data to the forum. The opinions reflect some differences in the academic community about how much and in what ways America is divided.
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