Posted on 2014 November 6


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American elections come and go, but some things stay the same. Like griping about politicians. Like the endless feud between Republicans and Democrats. Like the belief, shared by both sides, that America is going to the dogs.

One thing that has lately emerged in this eternal wrangling is the notion that we’re “polarized”. It’s as if Americans of different beliefs are now magnetically repelled by each other. Many seem angry and fed up, while a few speak darkly of fighting in the streets and revolution. Is there really a crisis point looming in the future?

Let’s look at factors that might contribute to polarization:

  1. Urban crowding — America started out largely rural, with farmers widely spaced. Today most of us are jammed into huge cities, where we bump elbows with people of vastly differing viewpoints and cultures and skin colors. Our natural suspicions get aroused, but fistfights lead to arrest, so we refrain. Instead, we nod politely at people who make us itchy with discomfort. One remedy is to pass local codes that prevent others from doing things that deeply offend us — playing loud music after 10:00 p.m., shopping with plastic bags, smoking cigarettes (or pot), wearing religious garb to school. And the more crowded we get, the more laws we pass. Many of these rules are deeply offensive to those who voted against them. Meanwhile, rarely do laws get repealed, so that we live in a nation encrusted with bureaucratic regulation. No wonder we feel polarized.
  2. Centralization — America was invented to be diverse. Freedom of belief and religion encouraged masses of immigrants who brought their unique cultures with them. At first, most American issues were settled locally, but today we’re a hundred times more populous, our society woven tightly together with the strands of Internet, Cable TV, and interstate commerce. Thus more of our lives fall under the purview of D.C., which generates “one size fits all” solutions that our highly diverse peoples all must obey. States, which once had great discretion over local cultural practices, are today pressured into making their laws comport with national standards. This is bound to create polarization.
  3. Voter impotence — In the first federal election, about 40,000 citizens voted. Today a decent turnout is around 100 million. Your vote counts for less than one thousandth of a 1788 vote. You’re much more likely to die in an auto accident on the way to the polls than change the election with your ballot. But it gets worse: you only can vote for people who can raise huge sums of campaign cash, so your choices are pre-filtered by deep-pocket special interests that don’t always jibe with your own wishes. On top of that, the two major parties work together to prevent third parties, with fresh ideas, from appearing in debates or raising campaign money or even getting onto local ballots. In short: there are a zillion voters, and the whole thing is rigged. Polarization, anyone?

No wonder we feel alienated. We’re jammed together with weird strangers, decisions are all-or-nothing from Washington, and we have virtually no power to affect the outcome.

Can anything be done? Here are a few ideas:

  • Decentralize society — Since the Civil War, state power has ebbed while federal clout has grown by leaps and bounds. Presidents routinely usurp authority, and Congress has carte blanche to regulate anything as long as it’s vaguely connected to commerce. Instead of local decisions and live-and-let-live, today it’s central planning and winner-take-all. One solution is to return power to the states, letting them decide important economic and social matters. In theory, one state can permit group marriage and nude bathing while another allows helmet-free motorcycling and convenience-store slot machines. In practice, activists campaign for national social laws on marriage, drugs, and the like, while hold-out states are shamed into compliance. But the idea that everyone should behave the same way is antithetical to the American Dream. We can, instead reacquaint ourselves with the simple power of moving to states that comport with our lifestyles. It’s easy, relatively cheap, and promotes tolerance: now the people you disagree with live over there. Americans of all stripes would need only hang together on issues of national security. Polarization would greatly diminish.
  • Favor super-majorities — Most decisions are made by simple majority vote, but in close results a nearly equal number on the losing side will fume with resentment. In politics, a win by 60% is considered a landslide, so if governing bodies enacted regulations only if they were popular enough to attain votes of 60% or more, citizens would tend to fall into step. Polarization would decrease.
  • Make laws expire — The federal government publishes upwards of 80,000 pages of new regulations each year. Almost none of it ever goes away. We’re weighted down by laws. From sunup to bedtime, you probably violate dozens of federal laws each day, to say nothing of state and local statutes. If legislatures were to put expiration dates on new laws, so they expired automatically in several years unless re-enacted, this would clear up an enormous amount of the legal deadwood that clutters our lives. Polarization would fade.

The problems of governance are vastly greater than a single issue such as polarization — there are huge challenges involving civil liberties, the Rule of Law, gridlock, corruption, term limits, etc etc — but solving the one issue might make room for solutions to the others. 

And then finally we could go back to arguing about important stuff. Like the weather.