One of the celebrated characteristics of democracy is the spirited exchange of ideas and points of view that a self-governed people can engage in. Democracy, whatever its flaws, enables disagreement without fear of reprisal. In theory, and often in practice, such dialogue offers renewal and energy; it delivers nourishment to the notion that the citizenry is the principal agent for forming “a more perfect union,” as the Founders imagined.
But what happens when the impulse to disagree hardens into an inflexible attitude and outright contempt for people on the other side? When the conversation becomes more toxic than temperate?
The tenor of political debate in the United States now mimics what was once mostly the province of outrageous talk show banter. The political has become personal—people with opposing views are not only deemed to be wrong; they are often also deemed to be bad. And ideological fidelity is increasingly demanded as a requirement for marriage, friendship or even collaboration. It’s ugly out there.
It is not my place, nor would I be so bold, to try to explain how the country has arrived at what feels like a dangerous level of animus. I will leave that to the experts, in this case a handful of Stanford faculty members, who address the issue of polarization in a series of essays.
This is a big topic, and analyzing it requires context, historical grounding, and a measure of scholarly distance that elevates the debate above competing world views jostling for the high ground. Thanks to these faculty writers, what you will find over the 10 pages their essays occupy is more light than heat, more explanation than editorializing.
Each installment addresses a different aspect of polarization—its origins, its underlying cultural, social and political influences, and even whether polarization is the right word for what is happening today. It will require some investment on your part, but I’m confident that you will come away better informed and with a new measure of understanding. Whatever sense of alarm you’re feeling may not diminish—no one is suggesting that this phenomenon is easily fixed—but the exercise of examining ourselves is itself one of the defining features of a strong democracy.
The collective efforts represented by this faculty “panel” exemplify a particular kind of optimism that democratic societies breed: the belief that we can make things better; that, working together, we’ll find an answer.
Is the republic in peril? Maybe, maybe not. But however serious the affliction, diagnosis is the first step toward recovery. Thirty-six pages from here, the doctor is in.
Kevin Cool is the executive editor of Stanford Magazine.