I have just read Ezra Klein’s Why We’re Polarized, an examination of the American political system and the causes of polarization. His central thesis can be summarized as follows, “Our political identities are changing and strengthening…now encompass and amplify a range of other central identities as well… have merged with our racial, religious, geographic, ideological, and cultural identities…these identities are fusing together, stacking atop one another so that a threat that activates one activates all. Since these mega-identities stretch across so many aspects of society, they are constantly being activated.”
Here are the specifics:
- Political identities—According to Pew Research Center, the average partisan gap has increased from 15 points to 36 points in the last thirty years. As an example, in 1994, 36 percent of Democrats and 26 percent of Republicans said that discrimination was the main reason that African Americans could not get ahead in society. By 2017, the Democrats in agreement with the statement rose to 64 percent while the Republicans in agreement shrank to 14 percent, so a 50-point gap up from 10 points.
- Religion—The single biggest religious group among Republicans is evangelical Protestants, while for Democrats it is religiously unaffiliated secular. Two-thirds of Democrats say that it is not necessary to believe in God to be a moral person.
- Geography—There is not a single dense city that votes Republican routinely, only a few rural areas that vote Democrat. The dividing line is 900 people per square mile; below that is Republican, above it is Democrat. America has 3,100 counties; Bill Clinton won half of them in 1996. But Al Gore in 2000 only won 700, Barack Obama won 600 and Hillary Clinton won 500 but still carried the popular vote.
- Demography—By 2045, a majority of Americans will be non-white. A majority of newborns is now non-white. Non-Hispanic white population will decline from 199 million to 179 million, while the Asian and Hispanic populations will double by 2060. Now no group feels comfortably dominant, fighting to define the national identity. The greater the level of racial resentment, the worse the perception of how the economy is doing.
- Compromising of Expertise—On highly politicized issues, a person’s definition of expert is a credentialed person who agrees with me. Among those skeptical about climate change, higher scientific literacy raises skepticism. Reasoning becomes rationalizing when we deal with questions that threaten our group.
- Group Affiliation—Group identity causes us to compete with other groups, and we play to win. Winning is positional, not material, as we aim to maximize our group’s advantage over other groups.
Klein concludes that polarization in and of itself is not the problem; it is the effect on the political system. The political institutions and actors become more politicized, then polarizing the public even further, then setting off a feedback cycle that forces institutions to become polarized. It is in effect a death machine between politicians and media, one seeking votes and donations, the other desiring growth in audience.
The 2023 Edelman Trust Barometer will assess the expectation for Business to act as a stabilizing force that quells polarization. As the most trusted institution, My Employer plays a special role in addressing societal issues. My CEO is expected to speak up on issues of the day and My Company’s newsletter is the most credible source of quality information. Business cannot take a side in politics. But it can act based on its interests, representing its employees and consumers, for instance, by providing facts on local and national issues to enable its stakeholders to effectively participate in elections, make better informed decisions, and engage in civil constructive debate. Maybe My Employer is in fact the most compelling group, bringing society back from divisiveness and anger by acting on those issues within business’ remit, from supply chain and the environment to diversity and inclusion. We have no choice but to try.
Richard Edelman is CEO.