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How to Cope with Polarization

In a world where political polarization threatens democracy on a global scale, renowned scholar Amitai Etzioni seeks in his new book, Reclaiming Patriotism, to identify the components of this threat and offer a practical approach to shifting this dangerous trend. Etzioni contends that it will take no less than a social movement--on the order of the environmental and civil rights movements of the past--to achieve this. At the heart of his argument is a recognition of what true patriotism means, the dedication of a nation's citizens and leaders to strive for common good. 

Democratic governments, from the US to Israel, from Hungary to Venezuela, from Turkey to Indonesia are in crisis—although some are much more challenged than others. If democracy is to be saved, more will be required than political actions such as changing the agendas of the parties (e.g., making them more “populist”) or forming new parties or coalitions. A major social transformation is called for—the rebuilding of the national community on which all democracies rely. This book spells out the reasons this transformation is essential and the ways it can be brought about. Polarization involves people who are divided from one another by more than whom they vote for. They also are divided by whom they socialize, talk, and work with, by whom they befriend and even marry.

In the US, 77 percent of self-identified Republicans and Democrats are married to or living with someone who identifies as a member of the same political party. Fewer than 10 percent of people who identify as either a Republican or a Democrat have spouses or partners from the opposing political party.3 Fifty-five percent of Republicans say they have just a few or no friends who are Democrats, while 65 percent of Democrats say they have just a few or no Republican friends. One out of five millennials (22 percent) has broken up with someone over political differences. Michael Bloomberg reports: “In 1960, only 4 to 5 percent of Democrats and Republicans said they would be upset if a member of their family married someone from the opposing party. In 2010, one in three Democrats and one in two Republicans said they would disapprove of such a marriage.” In other democracies polarization is also rising.

Because polarization has become so widespread and encompassing, it is no longer contained by a shared understanding of the common good, which could limit the paralyzing effects of social polarization on politics and provide the underpinning for shared action among opposing parties. A major social development that bedevils democracies is the loss of the commitment to the common good, a commitment that can help to balance particularistic interests, needs, and values.

I am often asked, How can one have a major effect on society, indeed on history? When I respond by suggesting that this is a rather easy question because there is only one answer, this tends to surprise people. As I see it, the one and only way to achieve truly transformative social change is to launch or join a social movement.

Key examples include movements on behalf of civil rights, gender equality, economic fairness, environmental protection, national liberation, and religious freedom. These movements differ greatly from one another, especially in their values and strategies for achieving their goals. They share, however, an underlying sociological feature: they withdraw legitimacy and support from a declining regime while laying foundations for a new one. To give but one illustration: The American civil rights movement challenged the legitimacy of discriminatory laws in such basic social practices as voting, working, education, and housing. It provided for de jure and de facto voting rights, made racial discrimination illegal and uncouth, elected thousands of African American officials, and increased interracial marriages. (The percentage of African Americans married to people of other races has increased dramatically since 1980. In 1980, only 5 percent of African Americans were in interracial marriages; that figure climbed to 18 percent by 2015.)10 To be sure, the movement has far from eliminated racism, but it did introduce major social and political changes.

Many Americans, as well as citizens of other democracies, are concerned that the guardrails of democracy—the institutions and laws on which it relies—are being weakened. To restore them requires a new social mandate. A mere change in the composition of the legislature will not suffice. One should recall that even when the Democrats controlled both houses of Congress and the presidency, from 2009 to 2011, the GOP and Red State Democrats blocked major reforms.

For the kind of sweeping changes now called for to save democratic regimes and make governments functional again, a major social movement will have to provide a mandate that will cut across party lines and force both sides to work together. This is what the environmental movement achieved when it led President Richard Nixon to form the Environmental Protection Agency and Congress to pass a whole list of environmental protection laws. This is what the civil rights movement achieved in the early 1960s. No such mandate is now available. Only a sweeping patriotic movement can bring about a wide-reaching democratic rebuilding.

Reclaiming Patriotsim is available in print and a free-download ebook.

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