Who is the cause of society’s polarization? All of us.

James Cartmill, of Veterans for Peace, holds an American flag upside down, to indicate distress during a Nov. 24 demonstration in Oakland, Calif., following a decision by a Missouri grand jury not to indict a white Ferguson police officer in the Aug. 9 fatal shooting of unarmed black teenager Michael Brown in the St. Louis suburb. (CNS photo/Elijah Nouvelage, Reuters)

I am writing this from Saint Louis University, where I am taking part in a lecture series celebrating the 200th anniversary of this great institution. My topic is Pope Francis, U.S. politics and polarization, a subject I am often called upon to discuss. I think in five years I have taken part in at least a dozen panels, all of which were asking, “What are the causes of polarization?”

Yet in contemporary politics, the question is not “What is the cause of polarization?” The question is “Who is the cause of polarization?” And the answer is: You are. You are the cause of polarization. And I am. Together, we are the causes of polarization. Unless we are willing to admit that, then the situation will only get worse. For polarization is not something that is happening to us but something we are causing. And the temptation to think that you or I are not complicit in it and that the fault lies entirely with someone else is actually what polarization is.

Together, we are the causes of polarization. Unless we are willing to admit that, then the situation will only get worse.

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After all, what does polarization require? Two poles. By that I do not mean two people or groups of people who disagree with each other. That is actually what democracy requires. What polarization requires is two people or two groups of people who disagree, each of whom believes that the other is entirely at fault and is politically, philosophically and perhaps even morally irredeemable. This is the fault line of our contemporary politics, the result of our choices.

How many of us have stopped reading opinions with which we disagree? How many of us have stopped watching news channels that feature opinions with which we disagree? How many of us complain about the content in our social media feeds while somehow forgetting that we actually chose to follow every one of those people? How many of us, deep down in places we don’t like to talk about, take some pleasure in the adrenaline rush that comes from clicking “like” and thereby instantly creating an us and a them?

The 2016 presidential election was one of the closest in U.S. history. It was weeks, in fact, before we learned the final tallies. It was that close. Yet consider this: 65 percent of Americans live in a congressional district that favored either Mr. Trump or Mrs. Clinton by 20 points or more. We do not even live near people with whom we disagree. That is the result of our choices, yours and mine, and those of our elected representatives.

65 percent of Americans live in a congressional district that favored either Mr. Trump or Mrs. Clinton by 20 points or more. We do not even live near people with whom we disagree.

Pope Francis sees this clearly for what it is. The phenomena involved in polarization reflect a deeper spiritual crisis in modernity, within you and within me. That is why this is the most important thing that Pope Francis has ever said about politics: “I am a sinner.” The first question he was asked in his very first interview, which we published in America, was “Who is Jorge Mario Bergoglio?” To which the pope replied: “I am a sinner.” I suggest that this is where we should start the reform of our politics, by recognizing our individual complicity in the sin of polarization, by what we have done and by what we have failed to do, and by asking for the grace to change.



I appreciate that this may not be what we want to hear. But this is our best hope. As long as you believe that the problem is someone else, then there is nothing you can do about it, and you will continue to feel helpless and at the mercy of forces beyond your control. But if we are all able to acknowledge how we are a part of the problem, then we can begin to imagine how we might be part of the solution.

We can begin the conversation by focusing on what we all have in common rather on our differences, a move that is itself subversive of polarization.

What is the issue at its heart? Pope Francis told us when he addressed the U.S. Congress: “The contemporary world, with its open wounds which affect so many of our brothers and sisters, demands that we confront every form of polarization…. We know that in the attempt to be freed of the enemy without, we can be tempted to feed the enemy within. To imitate the hatred and violence of tyrants and murderers is the best way to take their place.”

“The enemy within” is nothing more than our age-old nemesis: fear. We are afraid. All of us. And that’s good news too, because it means that we all have something else in common and an additional means of relating anew to each other, by the grace of God. To do that we simply need to do what God, through the risen Christ, is always urging us to do anyway: “Be not afraid.”

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Mike Theman
5 months ago

The polarization in US Politics dates back to its founding, even before: Federalism. Even during the war for independence, there were big-government British loyalists. The choice is freedom or oppression. The irony is that today's advocates for big government claim to be arguing for freedom but are actually arguing for oppression. with good, but misguided, intentions.

Ben Franklin said (and I paraphrase) that those who are willing to sacrifice freedom for safety deserve neither. The fact is, a lot of people in this country couldn't live in this country if it had actual freedom. And thus we have taxes.

rose-ellen caminer
5 months ago

Why Mike, do you equate big government with oppression and lack of freedom? What is freedom for you? What is big government ? How or why is big government inherently oppressive while small government is inherently good? You have no faith that people can form governments of the people, by the people and for the people? That such big governments can be defenders and promoters of peoples inherent rights and therefore a force for human flourishing [ to use a left wing/Catholic trope]? No offense but what you are saying or what I hear you saying are[right wing] propaganda clichés and tropes that are irrelevant to a 21st century democracy like the United States.

Mike Theman
5 months ago

Every defense and promoter of "rights" by government oppress others. The only rights government should be promoting are rights of the people to be free from government, e.g., the rights set forth in the Bill of Rights.

Let me give you the classic retort I get: "What about the FDA? Don't you want safe food and drugs?" Well, that's a strawman argument. The fact is that the reason drugs are so expensive in this country is because of the regulations that the FDA has promulgated that make it incredibly labor-intensive and costly to market new drugs in this country. Not only are drugs expensive, but in the US, the people have no access to drugs that are currently being used in other countries. People die and/or have lower qualities of life because of FDA. Now, the FDA is actually one of the ostensibly worthwhile government agencies that probably protects people.

Government produces nothing of value and takes money from the people with virtually no barriers to how it spends that money. Government takes. Takes money, takes business opportunities by doing that which the private sector could do, takes religious rights away by forcing "equality" with a boot on the neck.

This isn't cliche; it's reality.

J Cosgrove
5 months ago

The polar opposites are freedom and equality. Because equality can never be achieved in any natural way, the various forms of equality is mandated through legislation and regulation requiring a large government to oversee it . This requires control over how people behave and how money is distributed.

So the polar ends are really freedom on one end and control on the other.

It is never complete freedom since people have organized to protect their possessions and rights since the beginning of time. So the role of government in the free end of the spectrum is to maintain rights and protection. While on the equality pole it ends up as a massive organization regulating much of what you can and cannot do and how money is distributed. And once the government organization is established it is almost impossible to disband it. As Trump is finding out.

It is also never complete equality since such would be completely dysfunctional.

Most of the current wealth in the world was developed by people functioning under the freedom pole. Until this is recognized or acknowledged by the editors and authors here, there will be no dialogue and no give and take. There will only be polarization as one pole uses emotion, fear and shame to advance their agenda and the other pole uses evidence and reason. As an example of this look at the photo being used for this article. It uses a fake news story as a basis for the protest.

There are also other poles besides these two. For example sexual freedom and drug use is often associated with the equality end of the spectrum, since this allows them to tout freedoms. Thus, there are economic freedom and social freedoms.

And if the government provides everyone with money this would allow the freedom not to work. This is being advocated mostly by the equality end but there are libertarians who also endorse it. There is even an Alice in Wonderland concept that if the government does everything, one has the freedom to do whatever your inclinations are at the moment. This idea is actually in Marxism and is offered up as the end game of communism.

rose-ellen caminer
5 months ago

Our Bill of Rights historically did not insure Blacks, women ,children ,gays, disabled, convicts had their rights protected.It took laws enacted by the government. The government responded to bottom up political activism. Philosophically we can say that our rights are inherent and come from God, but historically; in the world, for all intents and purposes, our rights are whatever just enough people in position of power; legislative , executive, judicial, say they are. It matters not what the Bill of Rights says; it can be interpreted to mean whatever you want it to mean. The Bill of Rights notwithstanding, the unborn today have no rights. [ I don't support everything the government legislates or prohibits. Yes the government can do evil as well as good].Your claim that the government should be promoting the right of people to be free of government , IS a cliché .Without democratic government you have mob rule, and might- makes- right- tyranny. Your freedom[ to pursue your own happiness ] is only as real as your rights are protected. The protection of your rights entails a level playing field where all can pursue their happiness. Only government can provide for that level playing field protection of rights.[ So NO a wedding cake baker cannot tell a gay couple he won't bake them a cake as the playing field is no longer level for the gay couple.] That is the role of government as[democratic] government is responsible to its and for its citizens.
If the FDA is corrupt in some ways, if government has stopped people from getting drugs from over seas that might help them, people need to become activists to change the laws regulating access to over seas drugs. The reality is that people go over seas to get drugs because big democratic governments have price control regulations that keep drugs prices affordable.Freedom means to you the right of pharmaceutical to charge anything they want ? It's right wing fake news to claim that people go over seas for their medicines because here effective and safe drugs are constrained by big government regulations. People go overseas because in big government democracies, the government puts price controls on drugs making them affordable. As you admit, though regulating drugs for safety and efficacy is a good thing.We have congressional over sight of government agencies.

If religious practices contradict what a democratic government has declared a human right, then the government is justified in curtailing such religious practices that would infringe on these rights {Again. so no, a wedding cake baker cannot tell a gay couple he won't bake them a cake as that infringes on the level playing field rights of the gay couple.Though the baker can stop selling wedding cakes or wedding toppers].Government ideally protects human rights, and civil rights, and equal justice .
The money government takes from taxes is spent on how the elected representative deem should be spent. We have different political parties with different beliefs how taxes should be spent. Democratic government is about compromise on how taxes should be spent.

J Cosgrove
5 months ago

A polarizing force is right here on the America site. It is ideology.

By the way the reason I read this site is to find what are other opinions and what is the evidence and rationale for these opinions.

In general if a group's opinions are polarized that is unusual because what you should find is a random skew but what you have here is mostly opposites and usually extreme. That means ideology is driving these opinions.

Father Malone never admits this nor wants to discuss this. Instead we are called sinners. I'm not sure that explains polarization because one would expect a scattershot not clusters at the poles.

The right question is "what" not "who" is the cause. It is ideology not sinners.

I was listening to an historian a month ago who said at the end of the civil war a confederate soldiers from the hills of western Tennessee and s union soldier from the hills of western Pennsylvania had almost identical aspirations and beliefs except for one thing, slavery. So when slavery disappeared as an issue they were almost identical. Now two young people can live next door on the same block and have very little in common.

A couple things about the election. People knew by 11PM eastern time who had won. The disparity between Clinton/Trump by district can best be explained by local culture. I live in the New York City suburbs and nearly every public school teacher is very liberal and and has been for years. This has got to be affecting voting patterns. The other factor is the large number of minorities in the areas where Clinton won big. These minorities overwhelmingly vote for Democrats.

Michael Barberi
5 months ago

When it comes to polarization, it is the who 'and' the what that is causing this problem. Of course it is 'us' and not one person or group. However, to ignore the 'what' is being disingenuous and blind.

Fr. Malone is correct that the solution must start with an honest view of ourselves and the fact that we, unintentionally or intentionally, cause polarization in our politics today. Yes, we need to find common ground and approach each other with an open mind and try to see things from the other person's point of view. However, the extremes of ideology are causing many of us to behave badly. Many times we see violence and hatred in discourse and in action, and a belief that the other person is "anti-women, anti-Muslim, anti-immigrant, anti-good, or the other person is ignorance or misguided, sowing disbelief or misinterpreting Scripture, extremely liberal or rigidly conservative".

We see polarization not just in politics. Consider the fact that many bishops and theologians think Pope Francis has committed a heresy when he permitted Holy Communion for the divorced and remarried under certain conditions. This extreme rhetoric endangers the Church and causes division not unity. Is this a kind of polarization here or merely people and groups that are acting out their understanding of truth or the mercy and love of God?

I have no answers to polarization but strive to educate myself fully about both sides of an issue, pray for enlightenment, kindness, right action and humility.

Charles Monsen
5 months ago

Some weeks ago you wrote an article on the lack of philosophy being taught in America. I believe these are related issues. The line between disagreement and polarization is that one is based on reason, and the other is based on emotion or if you like faith (not a religious reference). Increased exposure to philosophic argument may help people understand that reasonable people can disagree, can listen to, understand, and evaluate the merits of their own and others positions. And most importantly change their position if reason and logic dictate.

If ones position is not based on reason, but is believed without reason, there is no room, or for that matter basis, for discussion. The best one can hope for is that each respect or ignore the other position.

Chuck Kotlarz
5 months ago

Political polarization has two sides believing government no longer represents them. They’re 100% correct.

Elections have become more about fund raising than “we the people”. When elections default to fund raising, the aristocracy eventually gets the legislators they want and the legislation they want. Over time, the two sides get more frustrated, feel powerless, and unaware the extent that they have become perniciously disenfranchised.

The aristocracy tells us a 90% top federal income tax rate would punish success. Should we instead ask whether the absence of a 90% top federal income tax rate punishes “We the people”?

J Cosgrove
5 months ago

Mr. Kotlarz,

Apparently you do not know the differences between the two parties. One wants to diminish the authority of the United States and make is subservient to a world government of elites. That is the Democratic Party. This flows from the writings/policies of Woodrow Wilson through FDR to the Clintons and and Obama.

The other party wants independence of the United States through limited government but a strong economy and military and no allegiance to a foreign organization.

You continue to rail against elites and aristocracy while supporting them. Before the 90% tax rate the rich were small and paid relatively little taxes because of loop holes. After abolishing the high tax rates a common person could get rich through hard work and innovation and we now have millions of them. It also lifted 10's of millions to a much higher standard of living.

Restoring high tax rates would just establish the elites even more so and create millions of poor because economic activity would be stifled.

I suggest you study economics. I have some good sources for you to read if you want to learn.

Phillip Stone
5 months ago

Catholics seem to be a sizable proportion of the population of the USA.
If denominational boundaries were set aside, Christians are a majority.
Is there no way that a multitude of independent candidates could be presented to challenge the bipolar opposites at all levels of representative government so that a policy by policy study and debate could occur rather than every voter having to choose a raft of policies, some moral and some terribly immoral, when they cast their ballots?

Jesus was a sign of contradiction, so He in His time was responsible for intense polarisation and was without sin.
Right or wrong are polarising, workable or unworkable are polarising, legal and illegal are polarising.
The real disorder is polar tribalism.
From Australia, I cannot see how any true Christian Catholic could possibly vote for anyone with the atheist, materialist attitude of the Democratic Party platform. Or the Republican platform for that matter either.

J Cosgrove
5 months ago

Dr. Stone,

It may be hard to understand what is going on in the United States when one was not raised and educated here. I find most Americans are not really aware of it either but if you read, you find the difference between both sides. The polarization is over freedom vs equality. One side wants a strong economic country with a strong military and a legal system based on the constitution to protect this freedom The other side wants policies to decrease economic inequality mainly through government action and laws. Both sound reasonable but each side precludes the other. This second pole wants to submit the authority of the United States to foreign organizations and change the constitution in order to accomplish this equality.

The main way the equality pole is trying to accomplish their objectives has been through identity politics and massive immigration by people who have no allegiance to the United States.

This has been going on for about 60 years but the equality/socialism pole has taken over the education system in much of the United States first through the universities and now the secondary and primary schools such that a lot of the young no longer have any identity with traditional America

It's a lot more complicated that this but this the essence of the polarization. The Jesuits in the United States and from what I understand most of the world have come down on the equality pole So what you see in America, the magazine, are articles nearly all using emotional appeals aimed at shaming or scaring readers into agreeing with their position. For example, one side is constantly accusing the other of racism when there is no evidence that this is true. I recommend you read the works of Thomas Sowell who I personally consider the smartest man in America.

Far from the Jesuits of old who emphasized evidence and reason.

Catholics are not large enough to affect this issue in any way as they too are polarized. Just witness the discussions and accusations here.

Daniella Alejandro
5 months ago

"Yet consider this: 65 percent of Americans live in a congressional district that favored either Mr. Trump or Mrs. Clinton by 20 points or more. We do not even live near people with whom we disagree. That is the result of our choices, yours and mine, and those of our elected representatives."

Is this article just written for white people or has the author never heard of redlining ?

Stuart Meisenzahl
5 months ago

Daniella
Father Malone grossly overstates his "20 point district favorability" issue. He really needs to analyze the swing in the votes of those districts in 2016 from the 2008 and 2012 elections for Obama. I suspect his thesis falls apart.
The political pendulum actually swings .....except on the coasts.
I am betting that each reader knows people who voted at least once for Obama who recently voted for Trump.
What seems to be very different this past election is the inability, and indeed the unwillingness of the coastal voters to accept that the political pendulum could be swung by a venal, big mouth, narcissistic non politican as opposed to a venal, entitled, big mouth veteran politician.
It never seems to occur to Father Malone that the absurd choices we were given created the current extreme polarization and not vice versa.

Chuck Kotlarz
5 months ago

In my comment above, I ask whether the lack of a 90% income tax rate on the top .01% incomes punishes “We the people”.

A series of tax cuts began in 1980 and the income share of 95% of all federal income tax filers fell considerably.

Much of the income share drop occurred during years of inheritance tax cuts. After a large inheritance tax cut, the income share of 95% of tax filers continued dropping for several more years.

Regardless of how hard 95% of Americans work, apparently, they don’t work nearly as hard as those who inherit a fortune. “That all men are created equal” perhaps has suffered the same fate as the republic.

Inheritance grows the aristocracy. Polarization (a dysfunctional electorate) perpetuates the aristocracy.

J Cosgrove
5 months ago

You should be very happy. The Trump new tax code taxes the rich more.

Top 0.1%, for example, will see their share of federal income taxes paid climb to 22% this year, up from 18.9% last year.

The share of income taxes paid by the top 1% will reach 43.3% this year, compared with 38% last year.

So essentially a small group of Americans pay the taxes.

Make America Great Again

Stuart Meisenzahl
5 months ago

Chuck
Based on your argument, you must also consider the " electorate to have been dysfunctional" when Obama was elected.

Chuck Kotlarz
4 months 3 weeks ago

Stuart, the birth of polarization perhaps coincides with the birth of the aristocracy.

The Brookings Institution notes from 1980 through 2010, “…redistricting (gerrymandering)…has become more prevalent and more partisan.”

The October 15, 2012 issue of America has a piece “Mind the Gap” by Charles Morris. Mr. Morris notes, “…from the early 1950s through most of the 1970s, growth in American incomes was nearly identical over all income quintiles… But something happened about 1977, and the income share of the top earners began to grow much faster than those of people in the lower brackets.”

Did the inheritance tax rate get cut in 1977? Yes it did.

Vincent Gaglione
4 months 4 weeks ago

The extremes have engendered the polarization. Some of the extremes are so virulent and radical as to offend the sensibilities and morality of decent people. More frightening are those who use the extremes to gain political hegemony or advantage by appealing to those not on the extremes but enduring difficulties that make them vulnerable to persuasion to the extremes.

The voices in the middle, the center of our USA political world, have been drowned out by demagogues and yes, the undiscerning and the fools ( I don't use that word lightly) who follow them. I look forward to the 2018 and 2020 elections to see whether or not the voices of the middle prevail. If not, the polarization will further deteriorate the fabric of our democracy and our Constitution.

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