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Political polarization is one of the key topics in politics and society today, and there seems to be a consensus on the opinion that political polarization is something bad. The ability to “reduce political polarization” is often called a key requirement for a presidential candidate. But even though I can very much understand this desire for social peace, I am not sure if this is something one can, or should, hope for.

When people think about “reducing political polarization” they often imagine the, in their view, absolutely crazy, ignorant or brainwashed other political camp to “come to a clear mind” and more or less stop fighting for what they believe in. But obviously they will not, actually who would? That’s pretty much the point of believing in something.

From my experiences, political polarization is caused by very different philosophies across society. And different philosophies are not really something one can weigh against each other. And I also don't see why we should have something like a “philosophical synchronization”, except for that fact that people tend to feel uncomfortable around people whose philosophy is incompatible with their own. But there obviously arises a problem for a state, because most of the political process, maybe of the whole idea of politics, is designed for a society with a set of common values.

Maybe you have been in a situation where you have argued with someone and you found out that your differences are a direct consequence of a different choice of axioms, but that each of you argued logically consistent under the assumption of his or her set of axioms. Once you hit that spot there really isn't anything to argue about anymore.

And I guess this is pretty much what happened in US (but definitely not only in US) politics, maybe only with the difference that, for obvious reasons, the political process does not support clarifying that differences of opinion follow, at least sometimes, from different philosophical axioms, but instead lets both political camps compete in a never ending “debate” which consists basically only of statements of party A why the worldview of party B is wrong under the assumption of A’s axioms and vice versa. A very exhausting and finally useless process.

Historically, people with such different philosophies tend to live in different geological regions, and those only had to interact with the other minded in a minor way. But this has changed.

I would really much like to present a solution to the resulting political problems, but I don't have one. I just sincerely believe that there is no magical way to resolve fundamental differences in worldview.

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    I think this is a really good question to ask and think about, but I don't think it's a good fit for this site. This is really more of a discussion prompt than a semi-objective question – divibisan Mar 31 at 19:40
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This is a rather tentative/stub answer because the literature in this area is pretty vast, and there are apparently some plus-sides to polarization, namely, reducing corruption. But to answer the question in the direction that was asked, i.e. what are the arguments against polarization, here are some such arguments that were advanced in the academic literature:

Some level of political polarization is theorized to be beneficial to a democracy in terms of providing voting heuristics or clues to help voters choose among candidates, mobilizing supporters, strengthening political parties, and providing programmatic choices (Campbell, 2016; Carlin, Singer, & Zechmeister, 2015; Enyedi, 2006, 2008; LeBas, 2011, 2018). Polarization is also conceived of as a neutral concept encompassing and measuring the natural differences and different expectations from democratic institutions and processes within any democracy (Katsambekis & Stavrakakis, 2013; Slater, 2016).

We are concerned, however, with the polarization that occurs when these differences become aligned within (normally two) camps with mutually exclusive identities and interests (Lozada, 2014; Somer, 2001, 2016a). [...]

We therefore define polarization as a process whereby the normal multiplicity of differences in a society increasingly align along a single dimension, cross-cutting differences become instead reinforcing, and people increasingly perceive and describe politics and society in terms of “Us” versus “Them.” The pernicious consequences of severe polarization follow from these features as they make compromise, consensus, interaction, and tolerance increasingly costly and tenuous for individuals and political actors across the opposite sides of the polarization. Electorates lose confidence in public institutions and normative support for democracy may decline.

At the extreme, each camp questions the moral legitimacy of the others, viewing the opposing camp and its policies as an existential threat to their way of life or the nation as a whole (Garcia-Guadilla, 2016; Pew Research, 2016; Schmitt, 1996). They come to perceive the “Other” in such negative terms that a normal political adversary with whom to engage in a competition for power is transformed into an enemy to be vanquished. Categorization extends to all aspects of life, not just political, and peaceful coexistence is no longer perceived by citizens as possible (Lozada, 2014; McCoy & Diez, 2011). Strong emotions of antipathy and distrust toward opposing parties, candidates and social groups make this extreme polarization particularly pernicious. [...]

Once a polity is severely polarized, very different countries face similar dynamics, resulting in similar problems. Situations of deep polarization create problems of governance as communication and trust break down and the two camps prove unwilling and unable to negotiate and compromise. Political gridlock paralyzes government, and in some cases, results in instability and careening between policy choices if neither side can prevail in the long run and seeks to overturn the predecessor’s policies at every chance. Economic and civil initiatives across party or group lines diminish, generating potential losses of overall investment and growth, public goods provision, macroeconomic management and growth, and socioeconomic development, while the likelihood of intergroup hostilities or violence increases (Alesina, Baqir, & Easterly, 1999; Algan & Cahuc, 2013; Rodrik, 1999).

Alternatively, one camp may become hegemonic and curtail liberties, tend toward authoritarianism or even establish an autocratic regime. At the societal level, citizens become divided spatially and socially. They come to believe they can no longer coexist in the same nation. Finally, the backlash and conflict arising from extreme polarization can also lead to democratic collapse if former elites and dominant societal groups, often allied with military forces, retake control with undemocratic means.

As you probably noticed from there, they focus on broader context than the US, where some of the arguments, such a democratic collapse are probably harder to envisage/substantiate. (I hope I'll have more time to come back to this answer and hopefully rely on some other sources for a broader perspective, but this should "get you started" with arguments/literature on why polarization is considered bad.)


I see after re-reading your (pretty long) question that part of it essentially asks if (ever increasing?) polarization is inevitable. That's a somewhat different question (than why is it considered bad) and I don't know if given the current circumstances one can give an answer that isn't pure speculation. Historically speaking however, polarization hasn't been on a constant up-trend in the US, at least by some measures, namely in Congress, which I addressed in another question/answer, so I won't re-paste those large graphs here.

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Great ideals in politics faded away a long time ago. If polarization persists it is not as you think a matter of clashing philosophies, but a matter of communication.

The media talks about fighting political polarization just to hide the fact that it is one of their most used tools. Actually nobody wants to fight political polarization because it is the best way to communicate to the voters a politics base on emotions and thus diminish their capacity to reason on the issues at hand. Why do you think the first thing journalists ask to new candidates is whether they are pro-choice or pro life, even though nobody is thinking about changing abortion laws at the moment? This is a way to attach a candidate to a controversial issue that creates a strong divide and makes difficult for each candidate to attract voters from both sides.

Furthermore heathed debates often appeal to the emotions of the listeners who will feel they have to take one side or the other and often don't realize that with a cooler reasoning they wouldn't have considered acceptable the positions expressed by both sides.

For what matters the politicians themselves they are not stupid, they know very well that politics is the art of the possible, if polarization prevents them from solving an issue it means that they don't want to solve that issue.

Edit: It seems my example mentioning the abortion laws has been poorly understood by commenters. I'll explain it again. The issue is always raised even if it doesn't have anything to do with the programs presented by a candidate. When journalist want to frame the candidate within a certain camp a reminder of whether they are pro choice or pro life is never missing, because it is a controversial issue and because it attaches to the candidate a label that overpowers all other policy proposals.

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    “nobody is thinking about changing abortion laws at the moment” What country are you talking about here? Certainly not the United States! – divibisan Mar 31 at 20:17

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