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As Long as We Remember...

October 23, 2012

Political Polarization: That Is The Question

Farrell Keough

As noted by Harry Nilsson, oh, so many years ago, “a point in every direction is the same as no point at all.” In other words, when someone espouses a general viewpoint that covers all possible positions, it is often the case they are saying little to nothing.


A recent article by Steven Strauss* (based upon a recent Pew Research Center report) speaks to the current political polarization in America. The article speaks to elements in our society that produce this polarization: “seeing what you want to see and hearing what you want to hear to the change in our media outlets and finally the lack of a unifying context to this generation. While the conclusions in this article are not necessarily correct, the general context is well laid out and articulated.


As noted in the article: “Americans ... values and basic beliefs are more polarized along partisan lines than at any point in the past 25 years.” (Pew Research). This perspective cannot be disputed – this polarization will exist through November 6, Election Day.


As noted by others, when we wake up on November 7, it will not be the end of our nation. Some of us will be sorely disappointed while others may well be elated. The question remains, what and how will we continue our communication with each other once this election is over?


This question is of paramount importance as we all are in this together. We are a United Nation in which we have a representative democracy – in short, our elected officials are to represent a broad constituency. We are that constituency.


If we are polarized toward one form of ideology, and those elected represent another ideology, how will we get our representatives, neighbors, friends, etc., to listen to our views and perspectives?


An event is taking place on October 30 at Hood College that may help answer this question. Entitled Overcoming PolarizationA Roundtable Production, it will be sponsored by four very different groups: Engaged Citizen, Envision Frederick, New Horizons Support Network, & Rockwood Brown Communications.


“We start with the premise that in order to communicate effectively in civic matters, we must do so by engaging in civil discourse. Where allowing passionate differences of opinion is not the same as allowing polarizing, insulting and disrespectful language to be tolerated. A belief that encouraging passionate yet respectful language will help us, as a community, move through our many disagreements  to find the most reasonable common ground available.


“This Roundtable discussion will bring together six community leaders to discuss the state of civil discourse in our community. This event sheds light on the negative ways in which we as a community interact with each other and asks the question, how can we collectively move past this behavior and move toward a more productive means of communicating in civic discussion?


“This event is the catalyst to a series of workshops that will take a more practical and intimate look at polarizing behavior. New Horizons Support Network in conjunction with Engaged Citizen will produce a series of workshops that will bring people of opposing opinions together to practice civil discourse in an effort to move forward on these complicated issues.”


Replies from people invited to this event have ranged the gamut. Some are very excited to attend; some live out of state and wish something like this was going on in their area; and some do not want to participate due to some of the speakers or groups involved.


This begs the question – who should be invited to speak or sponsor such an event? It would likely not be of benefit to have only one ideology, represented as well it would not be of general help to have only participants who do not know about or have not been involved in political polarization – either by their own or others actions. We have had this same reaction take place on both ends of the spectrum – which in one way indicates the need for such an event.


This can leave you with two general thoughts: if you have found someone to be a person you would just as soon not deal with, might it be they feel the same way? And secondly, do we have a problem with polarization and if so, should we talk about it?  It may be there is no solution – but unless we embrace the topic, we will never know.


For a hyperlink to Flyer Invitation, please click here. (It will have the location, speakers, and panelist.)


* Steven Strauss was founding Managing Director of the Center for Economic Transformation at the New York City Economic Development Corporation (NYCEDC). He is a 2012 Advanced Leadership Fellow at Harvard University. He has a Ph.D. in Management from Yale University and over 20 years' private sector work experience.



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