“We are a polarized nation!” Seems self-evident, right?
But to me the refrain feels more like judgment than explanation—one implying that we the American people are the problem: We’re just too close-minded, insulated, uninformed and prone to violence to come together for solutions.
Angry voices carried in news coverage of the anniversary of January 6th certainly stoked the diagnosis. As does a frightening new Washington Post poll finding that one in three Americans “believe violence against the government is sometimes justified.”
But framing our crisis as polarization is dangerous. It can serve as a veil, hiding what should be in plain sight: the insurrection and continuing angry accusations have emerged in large measure from a society not yet facing its deep shortcomings.
It skirts the truth that many Americans live in daily distress, fueling their fear and distrust of government. Even before the pandemic took hold, nearly 80 percent of American workers were living paycheck to paycheck.
Mistrust of government and the tensions between segments of society have been intentionally constructed and aggravated. Once you recognize that, the solutions to the crises we truly face become more clear.
The polarization diagnosis also blinds us to our broad unity. Over 80 percent of Americans agree that our democracy is not working well and believe our campaign finance laws are inadequate. A recent poll in seven states also found widespread support for pending voting rights legislation, and two-thirds of us back stronger action on climate change.
So, what if polarization was best understood as a symptom, not a cause? The result of a system guaranteeing the extreme accumulation of wealth, along with deepening daily insecurities and indignities for the non-wealthy.
Note that America has become more unequal economically than over 100 countries, according to the World Bank. At the top, 745 billionaires hold five trillion dollars in wealth—two-thirds greater than that of the entire bottom half of U.S. households, reports the Federal Reserve. More than a quarter of American households try to survive on $35,000 or less in yearly income, according to the Census Bureau.
Compounding this gross inequity is tax injustice: A 2021 study revealed that in recent years the “Forbes 400” paid an effective tax rate of about 8 percent, lower than what many everyday Americans pay.
Given these realities, many sense our society is rife with unfairness, and from there it’s easier to understand the resentment that makes people vulnerable to conspiracy pushers.
Contrast these truths with the long-and-widely held assumption that our country is the world leader. No more. Americans’ self-evaluation has been sinking. According to a 2020 poll, almost a third of us see our government as corrupt, only 39 percent believe our country promotes income equality, less than half view our government as transparent, while only half view it as trustworthy.
To make our poor standing among our peers real, consider the cost and quality of one life essential—health care. We spend twice per person what other wealthy countries do, leading to heavy medical debt, now our number one cause of bankruptcies.
And for all we pay, what do we get?
Unnecessary suffering. The death rate of our infants, for example, puts us near the worst among our peers—33rd out of 36 nations in the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development. Our rate of loss is three times that of Japan’s.
And what are the officials we elect doing to help turn the tide on these inequities causing such needless suffering? Very little.
Too many profit-seeking interests have their ears. In Washington, more than 20 lobbyists, primarily serving corporate interests, push their employers’ agenda for every congressperson we’ve elected to serve ours. Dependent on private wealth to keep them in office, members of Congress spend 30 to 70 percent of their time raising money to fund their re-election—not on furthering their constituencies’ priorities.
Also feeding our democracy crisis is corruption of the public square—news and conversation that are the heartbeat of democracy. It, too, has been captured by private wealth. Once the Reagan administration killed the Fairness Doctrine—requiring broadcasters to offer multiple viewpoints—news quickly became just another profit center. Rush Limbaugh became a multi-millionaire, and fact-free, emotionally charged content caught fire. Profits of inflammatory media—from talk radio to Fox News to social media—soared, as lies spread six times faster than truth.
Given all this, we should not be surprised that America—long considered the world’s democracy champion—now ranks 61st between Monaco and Romania in Freedom House democracy scores.
When our people suffer widespread economic insecurity due to the extreme unfairness of our economy and legalized corruption built into our governance—along with media profiting on inflammatory content—widespread despair, anger, and a need to punish become understandable.
The picture painted here rocks the soul. Yet solutions are within our reach.
We can begin by courageously taking down the myth of opportunity belied by our intertwined political and economic systems. Unless we clearly call out the deep, systemic injustices, those struggling to get by understandably can feel shame, and shame can fire angry blame.
To move toward basic economic fairness, a keystone in democracy’s foundation, we can insist on equitable taxation and reversing President Trump’s policies that are harmful to labor. The correlation between the labor movement’s strength, economic equity, and democracy is strong.
We can gain confidence that progress is possible by appreciating how other nations prevent the power of private wealth from corrupting political life. For example, one hundred and sixteen nations—68 percent—provide direct public funding to political parties. Did you know that Jimmy Carter’s campaign for the presidency relied heavily on public funding? It is possible.
Language is also critical. Just as “polarization” is misleading, also unhelpful is suggesting we must “save” or “protect” our democracy. Why would Americans want to save what’s causing them such suffering? Instead, we can cop to our nation’s democracy deficits and frame our challenge as building a truly accountable, transparent democracy.
Most important, all who are terrified by the strength of today’s anti-democratic forces can turn panic into action. Now is the moment. The Brennan Center reports that in 2021, the Republican efforts to push state legislation to restrict voting access was aggressive and successful—19 states passed 34 laws restricting access to voting. We can each push our state representatives to act now to protect our voting rights.
Today’s immediate focus on voting rights is but one key piece of a rising people’s movement for democracy system-reforms involving tens of millions of Americans—potentially strong enough to reshape governance to be accountable to all of us.
Frances Moore Lappé