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Our View: FOCUS 2021: Why are Americans so polarized?

How did Americans get so divided?

President Biden’s call for unity in his inaugural speech Wednesday is testament to the terrible divide in our country and in our community, the polarization that has led us to identify “Healing the Rift” as one of the Durango Herald’s four primary topics of editorial discourse this year.

We must attempt to achieve “that most elusive of all things in democracy—unity,” our new president exhorted the nation, and “end this uncivil war.”

We fervently hope that will occur. But ours is a wounded country; as with any wound, we cannot treat it or bandage it without a thorough cleansing first.

We must first see how, exactly, we are separated, and what it is that divides us. We must see how our very humanness, our natural instincts—especially fear—have contributed to this estrangement.

How, then, are we riven?

We are divided by political party as never before.

In his 2020 book, Why We Are Polarized, Ezra Klein notes that in 1965, almost the entire Republican Congressional caucus voted along with Democrats to create Medicare. In 2010, not a single Republican voted for the Affordable Care Act – which was based on a health care plan designed by Republican Mitt Romney in Massachusetts.

And though once political party membership signified just one indicator of identity, today it has become the umbrella under which we shelter with those of like mind, those who often share our religion, race, class, geography and culture.

Lilliana Mason, in her book Uncivil Agreement, explained, “A single vote can now indicate a person’s partisan preferences as well as his or her religion, race, ethnicity, gender, neighborhood, and favorite grocery store.”

Here in the Four Corners region, that chasm is most apparent in the voting habits of rural (favoring Republican) versus urban (favoring Democratic) citizens.

Social scientists say this unfortunate polarization feeds humans’ most primal behavior patterns: we start to act like small tribal groups whose entire existence is threatened by those who look, sound or act different than us. If you believe X, and you are a Republican, then your neighbor who is a Democrat must embrace Y.

Hence wearing a mask to prevent the spread of disease has become a political issue.

Everything begins to fall on one side of an invisible line or another; the middle ground, moderation or centrism, seems to have entirely disappeared.

The smallest of disputes becomes amplified and escalates beyond reason.

A case in point: the Top That Yogurt Shop altercations.

The owners of the now-closed Main Avenue shop placed Republican political signs in the store’s windows. Student climate change protesters passing by the shop made obscene gestures to the store’s customers. The shop offered discounts to customers who came into the store without masks, flouting public health regulations. Teenagers threw a booze bottle through his front window )it’s unclear whether the action was random or the shop was targeted). One of the shop’s co-owners posted a sign warning, “I shoot to kill.” And on and on and on it went.

But the confrontations weren’t literally between Republicans and Democrats; they were between individual people and diverse groups. In other words, the rhetoric and actions of those involved were stoked by “them versus us” assumptions.

Political labels give us the freedom to attack one another, Klein points out; any other kind of public attack is no longer tolerated in our society.

And once we’ve identified ourselves with a particular party or group, we refuse to hear facts that refute the “party line.” Thus a Holocaust denier, confronted with photographs of a mass grave of Jews killed in the Holocaust, would say (and believe) the photographs were faked.

Questioning ourselves and our reasoning can be a frightening and brutal process.

But we must be willing to do so if we are going to heal the rift in our society; personal willingness is the first step toward collective change.

We would do well to heed President Biden’s challenge to us in his inaugural speech: “Are we going to step up, all of us?”

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