[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.] [[link removed]]
IS ALL THIS "POLARIZATION" A CAUSE OR A SYMPTOM?
Frances Moore Lappe
January 24, 2022
_ 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. _
A Make America Great Again hat engulfed in flames burns on the ground
after counter protesters lit it on fire in front of the barricade. A
group with far-right ties that goes by the name "Super Happy Fun
America" holds a rally called "Peaceful Protest Aga, Jessica
Rinaldi/The Boston Globe via Getty Images
“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
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.
The polarization diagnosis also blinds us to our broad unity. Over 80
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
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
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
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
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
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 [[link removed]]. 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 [[link removed]],
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
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
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
[[link removed]] 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
The picture painted here rocks the soul. Yet solutions are within our
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
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
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
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 [[link removed]] for
democracy system-reforms involving tens of millions of
Americans—potentially strong enough to reshape governance to be
accountable to all of us.
Very personal self-interest can serve here us, too. Appreciating our
broad unity—belying the polarization frame—can unleash hope, as
does action itself. And hope is tonic for the soul.
Our work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). Feel
free to republish and share widely.
FRANCES MOORE LAPPÉ
[[link removed]] is the
author of nineteen books, beginning with the acclaimed "_Diet for a
Small Planet [[link removed]]."_ Most
recently she is the co-author, with Adam Eichen, of the new book,
"_Daring Democracy: Igniting Power, Meaning, and Connection for the
America We Want_ [[link removed]]." Among
her numerous previous books are "_EcoMind: Changing the Way We Think
to Create the World We Want
[[link removed]]"_ (Nation Books) and
"_Democracy's Edge: Choosing to Save Our Country by Bringing Democracy
to Life_ [[link removed]]." She is
co-founder of the Cambridge, Mass.-based Small Planet Institute