What If ‘Polarization’ Isn’t the Big Problem?

The University of Virginia Center for Politics published a survey this week that asked Americans about their feelings regarding political adversaries. According to the poll, 80% of Biden voters and 84% of Trump voters believed that elected officials of the opposite party present a “clear and present danger to American democracy”; 78% of Biden voters believed that the Republican Party wanted to eliminate the influence of “progressive values” in American life, while 87% of Trump voters believed that the Democrats wanted to eliminate “traditional values”; 75% of Biden voters and 78% of Trump voters believed that the opposing party’s supporters were a “clear and present danger to the American way of life.”

These numbers are alarming, however. Popular belief is that Republicans and Democrats are willing to give up democratic norms like checks and balances and acceptance of election results. It’s foolish to continue the process if your neighbor might abuse it. And the more we hate our neighbours, the more likely we are to take advantage.

This theory is not correct. But is polarization really the cause of increased willingness and desire to discard democratic norms?

The answer is not, according to new research by political scientists David Broockman of University of California Berkeley and Joshua Kalla of Yale. They write, “We find no evidence that an exogenous decrease in affective polarization causes a downstream decrease in opposition to democratic norms.” In other words, Americans hating each other less does nearly nothing to reduce Americans’ willingness to override democratic norms in order to achieve their goals.

Is polarization the only thing that is driving the erosion of norms? The truth is, perhaps the opposite is true. We’ve become more tolerant of our neighbours as we abandon democratic norms.

It makes some logical and correlational sense. One vision that the Founding Fathers held was one of humanity’s inherent potential. They believed human beings could achieve great feats, but they were also full of sin and corruption. An epistemic humility would prove necessary, given the human variability. This epistemic humility could be translated into the desire to have liberty. According to this viewpoint, high-ranking officials would have difficulty imposing a singular form of virtue onto a pluralistic society. Instead, subsidiarity could be used in which the local community governs itself while the federal government maintains certain fundamental norms. By creating checks and balances between the federal government and itself, there would be obstacles that required broad consensus about how power is used to legitimize it.

However, Americans today seem to be resentful of this view of humanity and the accompanying governmental approach. Human beings can instead be seen as flexible creatures who are able to adapt to the circumstances and become their best selves through a better system. Grant the “right person” with the “right principles” unending power, democratically or not, and watch virtue spring forth. Government isn’t the problem. It’s the solution.

Problem is, we all have our own ideas about who the right person should be and what the right principles are. Anyone who stands in the way of the government fixing all our problems becomes a heretic once everyone has agreed on the need for it. We set ourselves up to polarization, rage and abandonment of the Founders’ precise description of the human condition and the governmental structure embodied by the Constitution.

Our newfound disliking of democratic norms can be fixed by re-inculcating not love of neighbour, but an understanding of the limitations of our human understanding and human flaws. Maybe we should start by practicing epistemic humility. Perhaps from this source, a revival of democratic norms might be possible and a greater acceptance of our neighbours.

Ben Shapiro, 37, is a graduate of UCLA and Harvard Law School, host of “The Ben Shapiro Show,” and editor-in-chief of DailyWire.com. He is the author of the New York Times bestsellers “How To Destroy America In Three Easy Steps,” “The Right Side Of History,” and “Bullies.”

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