Zach Elwood on the Belief that "Polarization is not the Problem"


Newsletter 150: August 28, 2023


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By Heidi Burgess and Guy Burgess 

Zach Elwood recently sent us the link to his new article entitled "A Criticism of "Polarization is not the Problem" Stances: Why American Liberals Should Want to Reduce Us-Vs-Them Polarization." Zach makes some very important points, but it is a pretty long read. So, rather than asking to repost it here, we decided to post this shorter summary highlighting a number of his most important ideas, and suggest that readers who are interested in seeing his full argument look at the original article on Zach's Substack newsletter: Defusing American Anger: A depolarization newsletter.


Zach identifies three reasons why people commonly object when organizations like his (and ours) focus their attention on polarization as the principal source of our political difficulties. While his analysis is focused on the United States, many of his observations are doubtless applicable to other deeply divided societies and struggling democracies.

1. Only One Side Is At Fault for Polarization

Some people, he says, argue that polarization is mostly, or entirely, the fault of one side of the political divide, not both. "Polarization," they assert, implies equal fault and equal responsibility for fixing things. But, they assert, in the U.S., polarization is largely (or entirely) the fault of the political right, and hence it is the right's responsibility to fix it.  

As an example, Zach quotes Thomas Zimmer, the progressive host of the podcast Is This Democracy? as saying:

It’s true that the gap between “Left” and “Right” is very wide, and has been widening. But where that’s the case, it has often been almost entirely a function of conservatives moving sharply to the Right, and the Right being extreme by international standards. ... One party is dominated by a white reactionary minority that is rapidly radicalizing against democracy and will no longer accept the principle of majoritarian rule; the other thinks democracy and constitutional government should be upheld. That’s not “polarization.”

Zach counters this argument by saying that both sides are contributing to the polarization problem (though not necessarily in equal amounts). They commonly don't realize that, however, because they are so steeped in their own worldview that they can't imagine how reasonable people might oppose their way of looking at things. This, in turn, is largely attributable to the closed information bubbles inhabited by people in these highly polarized societies — bubbles that systematically filter out information critical of one's own side, while highlighting (and often overstating) information critical of the other side. This results in political stances and ways of referring to and addressing the other side that are often disrespectful or even dehumanizing. This drives polarization, no matter which side it is coming from.

This assertion immediately made us think of Erica Etelson's book Beyond Contempt (which Zach cites as well). Erica talked about her book at the Alliance for Peacebuilding seminar entitled "Toxic Polarization: What's the Left Got to Do with It?"1 In that seminar, Erica illustrated many examples of disrespectful or dehumanizing behavior that the left has aimed at the right.

  • A social media post that said "You know why Trump loves holding his hate rallies? It's the only place where Trump isn't the stupidest person on the room." (from Occupy Democrats);
  • "If Trump loses and his fans riot, the appropriate punishment would be to make them finish middle school." (Facebook post)
  • "Who are these idiot Donald Trump supporters?  Trump loves the poorly educated -- and they love him right back." (Salon)
  • "The Times finally gets to the bottom of Trump supporters: It turns out they're garbage human beings." (Daily Kos)
  • "Be happy for coal miners losing their health insurance. They're getting exactly what they voted for." (Daily Kos)
  • Let's Mock People Who Think Vaccines Are More Dangerous Than COVID: It's Foolhardy to Indulge Idiots who Flunked Arithmetic and Science" (DC Report)

Is it any wonder that the right takes offense at such statements, and returns the insults in kind?

In addition, the left, Zach points out, does not understand or accept the notion that conservatives might have legitimate reasons to take the positions they do. 

They [progressives] seem to see conservative-side stances on issues of race and social justice as almost entirely motivated by things like racism, or “white backlash,” or a desire to keep “Whites on top of the racial hierarchy,” or wanting to “eradicate” transgender people. They seem to equate the most extreme, hateful conservatives they see with conservatives in general, regardless of how debatable that correlation is.

Later in his essay, Zach explains that this is the "out-group homogeneity effect" — the tendency to see "the other side" as all the same, and usually, just like most extreme and outrageous people in that group. This is what leads to the "perception gap," which we talked about in Newsletter 143, which is the gap between what each side thinks the other believes and what they really believe.  As we reported there, many people think the other side is much more outrageous than they really are, with the most politically aware and active Americans tending to have the most inaccurate images of the other side's opinions and actions. 

In highlighting the left's  failure to recognize the degree to which it is contributing to the problem, we should be clear that a similar story could be told about how those on the right  tend to blame everything on the left in ways that refuse to acknowledge their own contributions to the problem. 

Because of these perception gaps, many people (on both sides) also seem to believe that the other side is "so wrong" that they do not deserve respect, or that the other side is so much more at fault for polarization than is one's own side, that one should focus on fighting for their own causes, not for reducing polarization. But polarization hurts everyone, and should be a concern of everyone, as it is completely preventing us all from effectively addressing our shared problems (such as social inequity, lack of economic opportunity, and cultural insecurity) and it is preventing the left (as well as the right) from meeting any of their high-priority goals. We agree with Zach's assertion that:

Many people on both sides will expend efforts trying to prove “the other side is worse.” And this is rather pointless: most people’s group allegiances are already well formed, and therefore much of the us-versus-them rhetoric and blaming can be seen as preaching to the choir, or even adding to our divides. The focus on “who’s more extreme” often seems a way for people to justify not having to work on the problem. . . .

To see polarization as a problem, we don’t have to see the contributions of the groups as equal: all that is required is to see that both groups have contributed in significant ways.

This, in turn, implies that there are things that both groups could do to help diffuse tensions in ways that could help everyone better protect their interests.

2. Polarization is Good

A second argument against working to diminish polarization is the argument that "polarization is good." As Zach explains it, many progressives believe that some people have "good ideas," and other people have "bad ideas." It is seen as important that those with the "good ideas" do battle with those with those holding "bad ideas," in order to eradicate those bad ideas and, thereby, improve society.

The "good ideas" that the left believes in, for example, are affirmative action and DEI programs, which the right sees as discrimination against whites. Another example is easily accessible "gender affirming care" for pre-adolescent children who want to transition to a different gender, which the right sees as child abuse. A third example is school curricula (such as the New York Times 1619 Project) which asserts that slavery and its consequences should be at the "very center of our national narrative," as it has shaped all the major institutions in America today.  While most conservatives do agree that slavery should be taught in schools (counter to the assumption of many progressives), they do not see it as defining America's character, and they do see traditional heroes (such as Washington, Jefferson, and even Martin Luther King as deserving praise, not condemnation.3 

Many on the left would argue that conservative views on these issues are clearly "wrong" and that progressive views are "right." The right, of course, will argue the same thing about the views of the left. And some on both sides see increasing polarization as the way to sort this all out.  Several people have contributed essays to this discussion suggesting polarization is good for this reason. One is Ken Cloke, who said that 

[P]olarization is a necessary precursor to change and an essential element in every evolution to higher forms of order.  Whatever is new, innovative, and about-to-be must initially separate itself from what is old, habitual, and already-is.  Increasingly, they are driven to differentiate, polarize, and stand apart from one another, and thereby create a crossroads or watershed, a pivot or choice point which breaks the assumption that “there is no alternative,” and forces collective energy to be redirected or channeled from one to the other. 

In another blog post, Julia Roig wrote:

One metaphor for the polarization we’re experiencing right now – articulated by Quaker activist and peacebuilder George Lakey – is that society is heating up, like a hot forge. i.e., the fire that we put metal into that becomes so malleable, we can hammer it into something beautiful… or not. Conflict. Disruption. This is the heat rising. And that is not necessarily all bad – because it’s a sign that we need change. What comes out of the forge, the sword or the plowshare – that’s up to us, how we organize ourselves.

Sometimes this takes the form of actions that are loud and disruptive – naming where they see injustice for example. There is a saying that “we need to polarize to organize.” You are staking out a side (a “pole” … saying that “this is what we stand for!”) And after a lifetime of being in the peacebuilding business, I know that we are living through a moment in history when we need to stand up for what we believe in. It is not a time to be neutral. I’m not talking about anything that has to do with partisan politics. ...

This concept of good polarization feels uncomfortable because conflict is uncomfortable and messy. We have different opinions about how to move forward together. We have different truths and sources of information that we trust. We have different ways of being in the world. Holding those tensions of our diversity and agreeing to keep going together is what will make something beautiful out of that forge. Rising heat is a sign of change. ... So then, I don’t believe now is the time to turn down the heat. I believe we need to be organizing together across difference to stand up loudly for our values. 

But, as we (Guy and Heidi) pointed out earlier, 

This passage can be read in two very different ways depending upon what is meant by the term "our values." If, by "our values," Julia means the socio-cultural values of her group (which may be left-leaning progressive values or right-leaning traditional values), then the passage implies an eagerness to organize and "turn up the heat" in the fight for those values…This, of course, sets the stage for intense and continuing conflict with those who have differing values and interpretations of human dignity. [3]

Those who say "polarization is good" seem to define it as simple disagreement over issues, which, they say, is desirable, because it would be clearly undesirable if everyone were forced to believe the same thing.  (This, we see, as particularly ironic, since progressives are pushing hard to get everyone to adopt the progressive worldview. Take, for example, the way in which even the slightest pushback against progressive norms around gender pronouns is considered hateful. 

But, regardless, many progressives we know argue that polarization is good because it brings issues to a head, and doesn't let them be ignored as they believe racism and anti-LGBTQ+ sentiments have been ignored in the past. Some make a distinction between "issue polarization" (which forces society to deal with some issue) and "affective polarization" (which intensifies intergroup hostilities and hatreds) saying the former is good and the latter is bad.  But they seldom explain exactly how to cultivate the first while avoiding the second. As a result, behaviors that pursue issue polarization very often amplify affective polarization, whether that is recognized or not.

3. Fixing Polarization Requires Compromise on Non-Compromisable Issues

A third complaint about the focus on polarization, Zach points out, is that it supposedly suggests that people should compromise and "meet in the middle," no matter how immoral or unjust one side's views are. To illustrate, Zach quotes from one of Zimmer's podcasts with Lilliana Mason:

You can compromise on what level of taxation we should have. You can compromise on things like, you know, how much aid we should give to foreign nations. [There are] gradations in those things and you can negotiate and you can find a perfect number right in the middle. […] If you’re talking about numbers, you can find a compromise. Right?

But the problem is when we’re talking about whether an entire group of human beings in the country who are American citizens should be eradicated. There is no compromise position there. We can’t compromise on whether black Americans should be treated equally as white Americans.

The problem with this statement, Elwood asserts, is that it reflects "an extreme bias against conservative points of view and an extreme bias in favor of liberal points of view" (italics his). We agree, and would add the observation that one of the United States' major political parties is in favor of "eradicating" blacks is a grotesque and highly inflammatory way of misrepresenting a legitimate debate about exactly where efforts to combat racism cross the line into reverse racism. There is broad agreement that black Americans should receive "fair and equal" treatment. The conflict is over what, exactly constitutes "fair and equal." For example, progressives see DEI programs and affirmative action as necessary steps to make workplaces "fair and equal," conservatives see that as reverse racism that discriminates against them. While it is clear that the two sides are quite far apart on this issue, we do think that (as the above, hopefully unrepresentative, quote suggests) attributing genocidal intent to those who take the conservative position on the issue is pure hatemongering. Rather than pursuing a polarization-based strategy that inflames racial tensions, a better approach would be to try to articulate and defend a more broadly supported strategy for combating intolerance and racism (see, for example, the work of the Foundation against Intolerance and Racism). 

Later in his paper, Zach says that people who advocate for the reduction of polarization are not telling people what their views should be, or telling people when or how they should compromise. Rather, he says, they seek to correct both sides' distorted views of the other, which will enable people to realize that they actually do have many values and beliefs in common. That discovery may pave the way toward compromise or collaboration; other times it will not. But certainly, compromise and collaboration are more likely to occur between people who understand, respect, and trust each other, than between those who have inflammatory and inaccurate views about the goals and interests of the other side. 

The other goal of people who seek to diminish polarization, Zach says, is to change the way people engage with their political opponents, even when they deeply disagree with them, so that they are not deepening the other sides' hatred and fear, which just makes polarization worse.  While he doesn't go into detail on how people can engage constructively, this is an important point, which we discussed in more detail in our earlier post on constructive confrontation

Zach does stress the importance of talking and listening to "the other" to learn both what their views really are, and also how they came to hold those views.  Very often, once we understand their life experiences, we will see that they are not nearly as off base as we thought. Empathic listening also enables us to learn about and correct misperceptions that the other side may have about us (because of the same information bubble problems that tend to distort our own perceptions).

Zach stresses several times:

"we can attempt to understand how those people on the 'other side' formed their views while still very much disagreeing with them."

Even if you’re sure that you’re on the right side in a conflict — as almost everyone in a major conflict tends to be — you might not see how you may be wrong in the ways you interact with others. Our moral certainty can lead us to behave in demeaning, dehumanizing ways to people who have understandable reasons for the things they believe, and this dehumanization amplifies our divides.  

So, he concludes, everyone should examine their own behaviors to see how they might be contributing to polarization, and do what they can to change those behaviors in an effort to diminish polarization. This will likely help them obtain what they want and need more effectively than polarizing the conflict even further.


1 and 2 "AfP Seminar--Toxic Polarization: What's the Left Got to Do with It?" Beyond Intractability summary by Heidi Burgess and Guy Burgess. Dec. 3, 2022.

3 Jean Hatfield "Partisan divides over K-12 education in 8 charts" Pew Research Center: The operative paragraph states: "Republican and Democratic parents don’t agree on what their children should learn in school about certain topics. Take slavery, for example: While about nine-in-ten parents of K-12 students overall agreed in the fall 2022 survey that their children should learn about it in school, they differed by party over the specifics. About two-thirds of Republican K-12 parents said they would prefer that their children learn that slavery is part of American history but does not affect the position of Black people in American society today. On the other hand, 70% of Democratic parents said they would prefer for their children to learn that the legacy of slavery still affects the position of Black people in American society today."

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