The Roots of Political Polarization

Our politics seem to be degenerating because we no longer understand each other’s priorities.


Political debates today seem more intense because conservatives and liberals are more often starting from different first principles. It is harder to compromise when each side is promoting values that seem mutually exclusive. This modern-day culture war has polarized disputes over legislation, judicial nominations and speech on college campuses. Taking a step back and understanding each other’s priorities is key to making progress.

• Truth vs. social justice. In a reversal of traditional liberal values, the left now prioritizes social justice over free speech, respect for facts, and the marketplace of ideas. The Obama Justice Department found in 2014 that the shooting of Michael Brown by a police officer in Ferguson, Mo., had been justified, and that Brown hadn’t had his hands up—but that didn’t slow the left’s “hands up, don’t shoot” narrative. Many opponents of Brett Kavanaugh made clear that his originalist judicial philosophy made them more likely to believe the uncorroborated accusations of personal misconduct against him.

Preventing a conservative majority on the Supreme Court was seemingly more important than what actually happened years ago. Social psychologist Jonathan Haidt has documented how the triumph of social justice over truth has resulted in speech codes, safe spaces, bans on microaggressions, and the censoring of conservative voices on many college campuses—the places that should be most dedicated to the uncensored pursuit of truth.

The Roots of Political Polarization

• Individual vs. group identity. The left sees people primarily as members of groups defined by race, class, sex and sexual orientation. They are therefore confident that demographics are destiny. Individual agency is de-emphasized on the left and pure merit-based systems are dismissed as self-contradictory, as President Obama alluded to in his infamous “you didn’t build that” remark. The left assumes that the presence of disparate outcomes proves inherent bias requiring state remediation, even where proof of intent or even deliberate action is absent.

They are confident a more diverse America will be a more liberal America. When minorities adopt views different from the liberal orthodoxy, such as Asian-American students suing Harvard for discrimination, liberals denounce them as “whitening.” Asian-Americans who reject liberal views are disparaged as “Twinkies,” and African-Americans who do so are called “Oreos.”

• Growth vs. redistribution. The left adopts economic policies that explicitly prioritize equality over growth in the apparent belief that the poor suffer more from relative deprivation than absolute poverty. The left emphasizes the ratio between the pay of executives and average employees, and they minimize the importance of gains in median-employee compensation. They oppose policies like marginal income-tax rate cuts and regulatory reduction, which generate stronger growth, in favor of minimum-wage increases, higher taxes and larger government subsidies. Throughout his presidency Mr. Obama seemed resigned to the idea that lower growth rates were a worthy price for reduced inequality, though he was more successful at accomplishing the former than the latter.

• Religious vs. secular. Whereas the left previously included Social Gospel adherents as a core part of its coalition, the modern left is increasingly secular and hostile to public expressions of faith. Bill Clinton said abortion should be “safe, legal and rare,” but comedian Michelle Wolf and others now famously celebrate abortions and no longer view them as regrettable. The Missouri Democratic Party recently reversed itself under pressure from progressive activists and deleted an amendment to its platform welcoming pro-life candidates. Not content with winning a decision from the Supreme Court overturning state bans on same-sex marriage, the left is now suing small-business owners to force them to participate in gay weddings.

The left celebrates victimhood over resilience and self-sufficiency. If not for the harm done to our nation, it would be amusing to observe the privileged children attending elite universities seeking new ways to describe themselves as disadvantaged. The left promotes immediate gratification over delayed gratification, thus opposing pension and entitlement reform. The left regards history as a repository of racism and sexism, thus tainting the value of long-held traditions in favor of modern-day progress. The left’s most sacred value, diversity, trumps notions of unity, assimilation and order, ultimately leaving society to devolve into a modern-day Tower of Babel.

The left’s values are often valid corrective reactions to society’s excesses. There is a need to be vigilant for the rights of minorities excluded by the traditions of the majority, and the economic interests of those left behind. Both conservatives and liberals should celebrate the economic and legal progress of women and minorities, while still recognizing the work to be done. Yet liberals often go too far, ignoring the need to preserve the geese that lay the golden eggs. There will be little left to redistribute if they succeed in implementing their ruinous policies.

It’s insufficient for Republicans to argue that cutting taxes and regulations will result in higher wages and profits. They must return to first principles, and start by reminding voters why growth matters. Conservatives must make the case for individual autonomy. Before arguing about the rights of evangelical bakers, conservatives need to show why all Americans, regardless of faith, should fight to protect each other’s religious liberties. If not, the left and right will continue talking past each other, wondering why the other side doesn’t understand its self-evident virtues.

Mr. Jindal served as governor of Louisiana, 2008-16, and was a candidate for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination.

Appeared in the November 2, 2018, print edition.

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