By David Barr
We are regularly reminded that our politics keep getting more polarized, and explaining why has become something of a national pastime. People blame social media, 24-hour news channels, or the fact senators don’t take time to smoke cigars together anymore, to name just a few. However, I fear we will underestimate the problem and fail to see its full range of consequences as long as we think of it only as a result of these new developments, rather than as something to which we feel a deep pull. It is not an unfortunate accident that these new factors drag us apart. It is in human nature to divide into camps, to be tribal, to want to see the world in terms of the good guys vs. the bad guys. And while I’m certainly not the first person to make that observation, there is one reason for that tendency that hasn’t been getting much attention: we are drawn toward political polarization because it feels good, because it satisfies our consciences.
This may seem like an unlikely explanation: if we all agree polarization is a bad thing, why would it make us feel better about ourselves or ease our consciences? Well, our consciences are (generally speaking) satisfied when we believe that we are doing our share to prevent or solve whatever problem we have in mind. For example, we don’t feel guilty if we fail to spend our entire day off at the beach cleaning it up, but we do feel guilty if we don’t leave our bit of beach as clean or cleaner than we found it. We know that if everyone else did that much the beach would be clean, so we feel ok.
Let's think about this in terms of politics: imagine you are a liberal and believe that most of our serious social problems are the result of bad conservative policies. You think the murder rate is high because of our lax gun laws. You think poverty and inequality are problems because of policies that favor the rich over the poor. You think millions of lives are lost and people are less healthy than they could be because we haven’t instituted single-payer healthcare (and you could probably add in several more items to this list).
Now, you might be right that these conservative policies are bad for America. It might very well be the case that the country would be better off if the liberal agenda did become law. However, we should all be very suspicious when we feel ourselves reaching these sorts of conclusions, because of the fact that we are so strongly tempted to think this way. Temptation comes from seeing politics in such stark terms: for our hypothetical liberal, because our problems are results of conservative resistance to liberalism, all that is needed to solve them is for everyone to become liberal. Becoming convinced of this has the convenient effect of assuring liberals they are not part of the problem. Being liberal is equivalent to leaving your area of the beach cleaner than you found it. If everyone else were like you, our problems would go away. The demands of morality are met, just by holding to your politics.
It gets worse. The world of politics becomes especially divisive (and thus our consciences are especially satisfied) when we become convinced, not just that our answers to the country's problems would work, but that this is obvious. If our policies would unarguably have the effect we expect, then those who disagree with us about what to do must not care about solving the problem or about the people it affects; holding our political position becomes synonymous with caring. We equate agreement or disagreement with our ideas with caring or not caring about people. Our political positions become evidence of, not mere political sagacity, but moral superiority. If the other side is not simply mistaken, but malevolent, then our side is not just right, but righteous. The more we demonize the other side and blame it for society’s problems, the more credit we give ourselves for being on our side, and the more we are satisfied that we are morally in the right. This is a comfortable place to be.
I want to be really clear about what I’m arguing here. I’m not saying just that we happen to find it comfortable when we are confident that we are right and the other side is wrong.
What I am saying is that, because we want to satisfy our consciences – to feel like we’ve met our obligations – we are therefore drawn to embrace a view of politics that tells us that our political positions are moral accomplishments. We want to see politics as a battle of good vs. evil because it allows us to consider ourselves good, without having to actually do anything good. If we are locked in a pitched battle for the ethical soul of the country, then we are fighting for good just by being political, by voting the way we do (or even by posting what we post online). We don’t have to actually volunteer at the food pantry or tutor kids after school or open our homes to strangers.
This means that abandoning our polarization would represent real costs to us. It would mean admitting the insufficiency of both our political vision and ethical achievements. Is it okay to think the country and its citizens would be better off if our political visions were realized? Of course! This is just what it means to believe in a political vision. However, when we think we have all the answers, it leads in equal measure to toxic political polarization and misplaced ethical self-satisfaction. And, again, my point is that it is our drive for ethical self-satisfaction that, at least in large part, tempts us to think we have all the answers. We don’t want to pay the personal cost of political humility.
The polarization that results prevents us from achieving the modest political progress that could be possible through compromise and cooperation. We end up preferring the satisfaction that comes from thinking our politics are a moral achievement to the difficult work of pragmatic consensus-building, on the one hand, or self-sacrificial actions that morality requires of us, on the other. We come to value ideological purity and distance from the other side as indicators of virtue (which, of course, we happen to have). We take pride in how conservative or how liberal we are, as if we have achieved something morally valuable, just by being less like our neighbors who disagree with us. We lose incentive to pursue middle ground in politics, as well as to do real works of sacrificial love.
That is the real irony of the situation: the more our drive to believe that we are doing enough contributes to both polarization and self-satisfaction, the more it prevents us from doing what we could actually achieve, both politically and personally.
The way forward, I think, is to remember that the problems we fight about are deep and perennial, with no obvious, complete political answers. The other side's ideology didn’t create them. Poverty, crime, inequality, personal immorality, and international turmoil are facts of life we will always have to manage, not solve. Just as no ideology is the source of all our problems, no ideology could possibly be the source of all their solutions. We should never think ours is. The fact that we don’t have all the answers means that if everyone believed and voted the way we do, we would still have significant societal problems. Holding to our political beliefs is not like keeping our area of the beach clean; it isn’t doing our share of the work. We have to do more, to work hard and work together, and deal in our own ways with the fact that we can never do enough about the suffering and problems around us.
In short, we can lament the toxic polarization of contemporary politics all we like, but we won’t be able to do anything about it until we acknowledge the cost of letting it go.
 A conservative equivalent of this might be something like this: You believe that our problems are the result of some combination of decline in traditional or Christian values or virtues and the growth of government regulations and waste, resulting in personal immorality, dependence on government, and the sapping of entrepreneurial and inventive energy. You believe that if everyone shared your values, faith, and/or virtues and voted for politicians who shared them, social problems would be greatly reduced. You see much of what is wrong with the world today as the result of a liberal shift, which you believe a conservative course correction would fix.
 A common example of this is when liberals credit themselves with “caring about the poor” just because they support policies they believe would (obviously to everyone) solve or soften poverty. They are thus outraged by the callousness with which conservatives don’t care about the poor (as evidenced by their refusal to adopt liberal policies). Never mind that conservatives often believe their policies will improve the economy in a way that helps everyone, and will do so in a way that encourages people currently in poverty to become self-reliant, independent, and virtuous. They believe the achievement of their political vision moves the poor closer to full human dignity and personhood (something they see as far more valuable than having the government give you things). So, liberals often convince themselves that conservatives don’t care about the wellbeing of the poor, while conservatives often conclude liberals want poor folks to become dependent on the ever-expanding state.
The difficulty in sustaining the motivation to make changes through political and personal action, in the face of intractable evil in the world, is a central reason my political vision is grounded in Christianity. The challenge of confronting evil is to act responsibly without clear hope of success. If that becomes too uncomfortable, we err by either rejecting responsibility or by thinking complete success is possible if our political vision were realized. I find staying in the uncomfortable middle requires hope beyond this world, though I recognize others find different answers.