by Kevin D. Vallier
The United States is an outlier among established democracies in two respects: We face both falling social trust and rising polarization. I have argued that the two dynamics connect in a doom loop. Trust in others and institutions falls, leading to greater polarization, which drives trust down even more. That is why the two processes are getting worse at the same time. A nasty dynamic has taken hold in the country, and it regularly affects all of us.
Many issues polarize us, but we should prefer polarization on economics to polarization on culture. Polarization is least damaging on issues most amenable to “splitting the difference”—as many economic issues are.
Consider taxes. Progressives want higher taxes on the rich, while conservatives want lower taxes. The possibility of compromise always exists—and even if it is obscured beneath the surface of our political tempers, uncovering it is not hard. For example, we could average our preferred tax rates, and no one would come away emptyhanded. Granted, that’s not how we have handled this issue in the past, but it’s at least conceivable.
When we polarize on cultural or moral issues, though, compromise is much harder, partly because compromise looks like weakness and defeat. Consider abortion. Most developed democracies split the difference. Third-trimester abortions are generally difficult to get, and second-trimester abortions are often discouraged, but first-trimester abortions are usually obtainable.
But whether a fetus is a person is a hard question to temporize on. Either it is a person, or it isn’t. And if the fetus is a person, it has a right to life—a right that could outweigh the right of the mother to control her body for the course of her pregnancy. Few people who believe that a fetus is a person believe that the mother’s rights trump the fetus’s. However, if the fetus is not a person, abortion restrictions are intolerable. They intrude on the mother’s rights, attempting to control the most personal decision she may ever make. If there is no child at stake, the limits have no justification.
Gender identity is another issue that falls into this either/or category. To some, trans identity might be a genuine expression of personal autonomy; to others it’s an unfortunate confusion that flouts biology. Either one’s gender identity is independent of biological sex, or biological sex is the only determinant. Conservatives see trans people as confused about the nature of their personhood. Progressives see trans people as struggling for recognition and freedom—they want the same rights as everyone else. How can we split the difference on this issue? Either we’re giving into metaphysical insanity (the conservative position), or yielding to bigotry (the progressive position).
The truth is that moral conflict is part of social reality—and always has been. Moral disagreement isn’t some perverse feature of modernity. Human societies have always wrestled with different perspectives and come to different conclusions.
Disagreement permeates our personal relationships, too. You’ve probably disagreed with the important people in your life, often about vital things. And yet, usually, you find a way to move forward.
Americans remain polarized on cultural and moral issues—from abortion to COVID policies. We could have regarded COVID policy simply as an economic issue, a question of who should bear the costs. But we have moralized it. It is a matter of life and death, liberty or servitude, sacrifice or selfishness on both sides. We cannot seem to compromise.
We need to think harder about finding common ground on moral issues. One solution is an old American one: federalism. Though not a cure-all, decentralized policy left to the states can reduce conflict, whereas disputes at the federal level seem to bring only more polarization. Perhaps we will face a new test for federalism in June: If the Supreme Court overrules Roe and Casey, we will need to forge a new federal compromise—and on the most polarizing issue of all.
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Kevin D. Vallier is associate professor of philosophy at Bowling Green State University. His most recent book is Trust in a Polarized Age (Oxford University Press, 2020).
Photo “Crowd of People, Some Wearing Masks” by Marcello Migliosi.