Wedged — Some Good Ideas For Fighting Polarization

This isn’t the first time I’ve written about the polarization epidemic our country faces. You don’t have to read too far into my previous review to see that I wasn’t too impressed with the approach recommended in The Dividend Era. Focusing on partisanship and trying to simplify issues is not the way to get America back on track. If anything, it personified the problem rather than providing a viable solution.

Which is why I felt like I had been given a gift when I received an invitation to review Wedged: How You Became a Tool of the Partisan Political Establishment, and How to Start Thinking for Yourself Again, the first offering of scholar/bloggers Erik Fogg and Nathaniel Greene.

This book is a heavy dose of just what the American voter needs: an impassioned plea for level-headedness mixed with a thoughtful dissertation on some of the most serious wedging issues we face today. The book identifies and breaks down the problem, provides numerous case studies and finishes with some great remedies for the epidemic we face.

Fogg and Greene start with the root causes of wedging in American politics. Political and media incentives, combined with voter psychology combine to make a perfect storm of sorts: since voters’ political beliefs are held with an almost tribal us-versus-them mentality, they are more likely to associate with, read news written by, and vote for people who are “on the team”. Those with more moderate values become less engaged because they don’t feel welcome on either side of the divide, and have few representatives in the media or the state house. It has created a system in which those voters at the fringes of the left-right spectrum of political belief hold the most power and dominate the discussion, leaving everyone else disaffected and disengaged.

It is, quite simply, a cancer on one of the pillars of our democracy, citizen participation. But the problem goes even deeper than that.

As voter participation falls and moderates become less and less engaged, we lose focus on the issues that really matter. As the authors show, wedge issues are very often issues that most voters don’t rank highly on their list of policy priorities. We are being distracted from what really matters.

The authors then dive into what was for me a brilliantly written policy primer on a few of the most prominent wedge issues we face today: gun control, abortion, black lives matter, and inequality. Using statistical analyses of polling data taken from widely available internet sources, they make a strong argument that the forces they identified have over-simplified and escalated debate on these topics. They also show that, particularly in the case of gun control and abortion, fringe elements drive the debate while most Americans agree on many of the basic principles underlying the debate. This, they argue, is why wedging is a tragedy: by and large, Americans agree on principles, which means that there is room for compromise. But we are being duped by our own apathy.

Fogg and Greene next provide a case study of a wedge issue that has disappeared: gay marriage. Public opinion on the issue has changed drastically over the past ten years; it has essentially died as an issue. They rightly point out that as opponents of gay marriage came into contact with more and more homosexuals in their daily lives it became harder and harder for them to oppose gay marriage, regardless of their personal beliefs on the matter. Combine that with the fact that millennials are far more likely to support gay marriage and that they came of voting age within the past ten years, and it is easy to see why the issue has essentially disappeared.

I did disagree, however with one element of their analysis of the means for solving the problem. They rightly point out that the issue was mostly solved in the courts rather than in legislatures. Then they add:

Many judges are far less subject to the whims of public support and need not use wedging, grandstanding, or other “fire-up” tactics in order to win support to continue at their post. This relative immunity from the ugly business of electoral politics removes the incentive to manipulate the American public and keeps rhetoric focused on policy rather than sweeping statements of good and evil…”

I find this passage slightly disturbing because it seems to suggest that it is preferable for issues to be solved in court because we can skip the “ugly business” of democratic practice. Politics has been an ugly business since democracy was first implemented (witness the death of Socrates or the frequently murderous arena of Roman politics). Nevertheless, the idea that policy decisions are better made by largely unaccountable judges is like a Gordian knot solution: it undermines the democratic process by finding a shortcut that avoids the real problem. If moderates can take back the process by becoming more engaged, as the authors suggest, then our democracy will function more as it should and we will rely less and less on the courts to make policy and leave them to their more proper role of interpreting laws through the lens of the Constitution.

However, as the authors turn to pointing out their plan for solving our polarization problem, they rightly put their focus back on some solid solutions: starting with ourselves, and building a more thoughtful, curious mindset. Asking ourselves why we are automatically more skeptical when provided with data that doesn’t suit our viewpoint or actually talking policy with people who see things differently is a great start. As more and more people take part in this sort of dialogue, the more moderate electorate will become more engaged. Ultimately it will build into a movement that emphasizes more centrist, meaningful reforms that more Americans view as priorities.

One other disclaimer I must add: I am a conservative, and as such there were obviously points made by Frogg and Greene that I disagreed with — for example, I still think the Affordable Care Act is a horrible law. I can’t really think of one element of the law that I found appealing. But emphasizing these types of differences misses the point of the book (as well as the point of this website): meaningful reforms will come when people partake in meaningful discussion about what really matters and what compromises can be made to get our nation back on track. No one is asking anyone to abandon their principles, if anything, Fogg and Greene show us that sticking to our principles will actually help to make things better. They are simply asking us to challenge ourselves, become more informed, and be more open-minded.

I think I will be buying numerous copies of the book to give to family members and friends the Christmas season. If enough Americans even just watched this video or read through this blog things would start to get better.

Fogg and Greene show us that we can protect ourselves by getting smarter on the issues, challenging ourselves to consider other viewpoints, and get more engaged. And therein lies the power of our democracy: it truly is up to the people. Get it started by picking up a copy of this book. You won’t be disappointed.

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