43: Polarization in America: A Growing Threat?

Noted by several readers: the initial version had an error that reversed the meaning of the sentence. It should have read that trust in the government (not distrust) had been at 75% and had declined to 25%. Below, a corrected version.

43. Polarization in America: A Growing Threat?

Modern communications, by giving everyone a chance to be heard, were supposed to democratize public space and promote social unity. But a growing number of analysts argue that public discourse is at a new low. Are they correct?

Yes. Newspapers and broadcasters in the past represented a variety of views, but also exercised a minimal quality control over what was circulated. The internet and fragmented media of today, in contrast, give equal space to crackpot notions and enable the development of niche audiences safely cocooned in their own echo chambers.

The resulting polarization has vastly cheapened public dialogue. In one survey, over half the respondents described their political opponents as "downright evil."

Issues on which there was once consensus have become politicized. Even scientific questions have been dragged into the dirt. In one recent poll, 47 percent of Republicans said they were unwilling or unlikely to be vaccinated, as though the coronavirus operated along party lines.

Conspiracy theories run rampant. In the same poll, 20 percent of the respondents agreed that it was true, or probably true, that the government was using the Covid vaccine to implant microchips into those naive enough to believe in the honesty of the scientific establishment.

Distrust has become a growth industry. In 1964, over 75 percent of the U.S. public still expressed a basic trust in the federal government. A recent Pew poll put this figure at about 25 percent. Trust in the media -- even though or because it now represents every possible point of view -- declined from about 70 percent to around 40 percent during the same period.

The glue holding the nation together is disintegrating. As one observer expressed it, the trust that once operated vertically is now fragmented and is expressed laterally, as people divide into their respective tribes and take an increasingly hostile stance toward other tribes.

So nothing should surprise us. Nevertheless, I was astounded to read the results of one other recent poll that has received surprisingly little notice.

Fully 37 percent of those surveyed were willing to consider the secession of states from the union and the division of the U.S. into two nations. Southern Republicans supported the idea by a 66 percent majority.

And here we thought that this particular issue had been settled.