While sitting in the hair salon attempting a “new look” for the new school year, one of the stylists mentioned a nasty Facebook post about illegal immigrants. I froze, waiting to see which side of the debate my chatty new friends would fall on. “Ridiculous!” she yelled. “Time to unfriend this one.” I let out a small breath and allowed myself a grin. My hairdresser explained that they never talk about politics in the salon, but I laughed and told her it was refreshing. We began discussing the matter at hand, but soon the conversation morphed into other hot topics, from immigration to religion to freedom of the press to Trump’s politics. Despite the generation gap and perspective on religion, we agreed on many topics plaguing the current news. But, the most interesting part was how we both viewed controversy.
I have always enjoyed open conversations about politics. I’ll never claim to be conservative, but I can at least try to understand their point of view. Even if I don’t agree with the person I am talking to, I try to understand and hopefully respect their views. However, often times we see people who get into debates become more polarized in their opinions by the time they are done. Instead of listening to each other and trying to find common ground, they dig in their heels at the slightest opposition — halting the opportunity to grow.
But this conversation went differently. My hairdresser considered herself a moderate liberal, but she told me how important she thinks it is to talk to people who don’t have the same opinions. She encourages her mother, a staunch liberal, to do the same. In a country that doesn’t take well to controversy, she is a rare breed.
Some of our wisest and most beloved presidents have been the ones to speak out against this polarization. When George Washington left office, he begged America not to develop political parties. Abraham Lincoln told us a house divided cannot stand. So why do we continually let our increasing polarization tear our country apart?
According to a study done by Pew Research Center, America is becoming more and more polarized by the year. While 20 years ago, your views on racism had no relevance to your views on the environment, in today’s society, it is becoming increasingly more likely that if you hold liberal or conservative views on certain topics, it translates to other topics as well, despite not having anything to do with each other.
In the Pew Research Center survey in 1994, only 3 percent of the American population fell into the consistently liberal category and 7 percent identified as consistently conservative. However, in 2014, 12 percent of Americans were consistently liberal and 9 percent were consistently conservative. Even people who previously considered themselves moderate are moving further to the right and left, with less little middle ground.
This in itself is not necessarily a bad thing. However, this streamline of ideals has been slowly leading to more and more polarization within parties, to the point where one side cannot acknowledge the other side’s good ideas simply because they don’t come from their own party. America is getting to the point where people don’t just disagree with the “other side,” but they consider them bad people, and occasionally a threat to the nation.
Pew Research Center found that the percentage of Republicans who had a very unfavorable opinion of Democrats rose 26 percent between 1994 and 2014, and the percentage of Democrats who had very unfavorable opinions of Republicans rose 22 percent. With this dramatic increase in animosity, it’s no wonder Congress shuts down so often. It’s hard enough to come to a consensus on an issue no one agrees on. It’s even harder when everyone actively dislikes each other.
There are many factors involved in the rise of polarization in politics. David Blankenhorn, in his article in The American Interest, highlights the impact of growing diversity, geographic and political sorting and new political rules as some of the ultimate causes of polarization — some of which cannot and should not be helped. However, some of the more direct causes are ones for which we ourselves are responsible: the either/or mindset, thinking uncertainty is a weakness and looking for evidence that supports a conclusion and ignoring facts, to name a few. With simple answers such as these, they should be simple fixes. However, this polarization runs deeper and is more prevalent than we think.
The first and most important step for depolarization is conversation. Not debate, not arguing — conversation. If we can stop looking at each other as Democrats and Republicans, liberals and conservatives, and start seeing each other as people with different ideas, we might start listening to each other. The second step is to change our general views on controversy. If we start viewing it as challenging and enlightening instead of frustrating and polarizing, we can begin to grow as individuals and as a society. When we can start having civil, controversial conversations with our hairdressers, then maybe we’ll finally understand each other.
Dana Pierangeli can be reached at email@example.com.