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Political Polarization Is a Good Thing

By William A. McConnell, Contributing Opinion Writer
William A. McConnell ‘22 is a Mathematics concentrator in Adams House.

As political polarization grows in America, calling it out is all the rage.

Sixty-eight percent of Americans call the lack of civility a major problem today. “Both-sides” is said so often that we need a verb for it. Joe Biden entered office vocally crushing on bipartisanship. All last year Mitt Romney amassed gold-stars for his short breaks from voting with Trump and the GOP.

At Harvard, recent calls to hire more conservative faculty bemoan the lack of ideological diversity among faculty members and warn of discussions having “only one correct side of the issue.”

Partisanship has two main drawbacks, one political and one personal. It can blind you to honest criticism, and it can damage relationships unnecessarily in the name of politics. In other words, you might miss Grandma’s reasonable point about government overreach, and you might ruin dinner with Grandma fighting when you could be putting politics aside and talking about, you know, crosswords.

These are understandable concerns, but in reality, neither is especially relevant today. For one, Grandma doesn’t make reasonable points anymore. She hasn’t since 2002 when Fox News took over cable media and her sanity.

The right has gone completely off the rails. The most prominent conservative voices today  — Tucker Carlson and Ted Cruz come to mind  —  spew tired conservative talking points that are equal parts imagination and white supremacy. Fewer than one in three Republicans believe climate change is human-caused. Sixty percent of House Republicans supported Texas’s lawsuit against the results of the 2020 election. The majority of Republicans think the flu is deadlier than Covid-19. Startling surveys have suggested moderate to widespread support for QAnon amongst Republican citizens.

But the truth is in the middle? Explain.

Reach across the aisle today and you will burn your hand in a dumpster fire. The people preaching civility and tolerance from the left are asking us to keep trying.

When it comes to personal relationships, civility doesn’t demand bipartisanship. I am nice to Grandma. My grandma is a sweet old woman who is brainwashed by Fox News. Her political contribution to my life is as a barometer of how far off the right has gone. It’s a character flaw, but at her age and with her background, a small one. Grandma and I get along just fine.

Too often, those lamenting polarization are unable to articulate exactly what personal or political costs it is incurring. They are our generation’s version of Martin Luther King Jr.’s white moderates: preferring “a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice.”

American Democrats who mean what they say need to make peace with polarization and commit to the pursuit and use of their power. Compromise with Senate Republicans is a pipe dream; the filibuster must go starting with H.R.1. If not now, then after the midterms. Washington D.C. should be added as a blue state with blue senators, and we should entertain a serious discussion about court-packing. Direct measures aside, marquee policies need to inoculate themselves against right-wing media criticism. For example: how easily will the right be able to convince minimum wage workers en masse that a raise in the minimum wage is bad for them? The game, as Derek Thompson puts it, is about “doing good and popular stuff in a way that keeps you in power so you can do more good stuff.”

As citizens, we would benefit from the same mindset shift: from an idealistic politics of truth, collaboration, and middle-paths to a politics of power. We should embrace polarization and the new attitudes and political strategies that come with it. If we are engaging with the right politically, it is to bring them to our side. Can you get your relative in a swing state to change their vote? Encourage a friend to understand their hidden biases and confront them? Get your friend to shut up about the pitfalls of polarization?

I can share from personal experience that waving a big fat sign that says “You’re an idiot,” even if it’s true and you desperately want to, doesn’t accomplish what you hope it will. But neither does blindly giving “the other side” credibility it doesn’t deserve. Listen too earnestly, and you risk losing sight of what’s right. Don’t listen enough, and you won’t understand someone’s actions enough to change them.

As Harvard students, we should reject the idea that Harvard would benefit from artificially balancing its political bent with more conservative faculty whose views are a minority in academia for a reason. Doing so would empower the right and give it undeserved legitimacy through the Harvard brand.

I guess my point is this: Instead of mounting a misplaced and counterproductive assault on polarization, be blunt about who is talking sense and who isn’t, listen only to people who are, persuade those who aren’t, and try not to burn bridges with Grandma along the way.

William A. McConnell ‘22 is a Mathematics concentrator in Adams House.

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