What Alumni Think About Polarization
More than 200 readers responded to our series of essays about America’s political divide. Here’s what you said.
This spring, we asked nine Stanford scholars to share their views on American political polarization today and to explain how we got here — that is, why many of us feel like we’re living in a divided and increasingly pessimistic society.
We also asked readers to weigh in with their thoughts by writing us letters and responding to a three-question survey. As of July 3, we’d received 212 survey responses and more than 170 letters and comments. Here are the survey results, along with a sampling of reader reactions, which were edited for length and clarity.
The feature showcasing nine Stanford scholars sharing their perspectives on the current political divide is brilliant. I love how you brought many different disciplines and perspectives to the national discussion of polarization in politics and media.
— Mary Hunt, ’86, San Francisco, California
Let us sincerely hope that STANFORD did not adequately scour the campus for the most conciliatory, empathetic political writers in producing these essays. I’m sure you won’t find any who admit to voting for Trump, but maybe there’s someone without contempt toward those who did.
— Don Brown, MS ’84, PhD ’88, Salt Lake City, Utah
All empires ultimately come to an end, usually under the weight and hubris of their elites and the military. American hegemony is coming to an end. America today looks more like an authoritarian state than its democratic Western heritage. Yet your authors offered so little historical context for this and how that might impact the nation’s psyche.
—Andrew Northrop, ’89, San Francisco, California
I wonder if more explicit comparisons to past eras could be made. For instance, the Progressive era was extremely turbulent but resulted in child labor laws, food safety regulations, direct election of U.S. senators, women’s suffrage and more. Similarly, in the 1960s, many thought the nation would be torn at the seams. Instead, we got the most meaningful voting and civil rights advancements since 1865, protections for the environment and huge federal programs for poverty alleviation. This feels like a similar period, in which the hopes of the marginalized and oppressed gnash against the status quo until everything breaks free. For a brief time, we escape the oppressive political realities and lurch forward before everything settles into a new normal, and we wait 50 years for it to happen again.
— Jordan C. Brown, ’04, Los Angeles, California
I don’t hold out for any solutions like we thought could be reached in the 1960s. Sorry for the pessimism.
—Norm Hamisch, ’70, Tonopah, Arizona
Asking the faculties of elite universities to solve polarization is like asking the foxes to solve the trouble in the henhouse.
—Richard Jennings, ’48, Indian Wells, California
Our universities can lead by presenting a balanced view of all major social and religious positions. Students should be encouraged to deliberately seek out others and engage positively with those who embrace different philosophical frameworks.
—Ken Evans, Mount Pleasant, South Carolina
What is with the term “representative democracy”? Is the faculty so bigoted that they cannot bring themselves to use proper terminology? We are a republic, not a democracy. I am now skeptical about recommending Stanford to prospective students.
—Joseph F. Iaquinto, MS ’71, Leesburg, Virginia
Polarization has been exacerbated by gerrymandering on the political level and the rise of alternative media on the social level.
—Ken Galal, MS ’99, San Francisco, California
We are polarized because of a conflict of visions for this country. One group believes in the values and principles that this country was founded on. The other believes the country needs to be fundamentally transformed.
—Dan Budzynski, MS ’79, Novi, Michigan
Much of our polarization is still about lingering racial attitudes.
—Don Sharpes, MA ’68, Scottsdale, Arizona
Identity politics was not invented in the 1960s. It was very much on James Madison’s mind (and those of his colleagues) by the end of the 18th century. Whether Virginians would see that they had common cause with New Englanders was a live question.
—Barry Levine, PhD ’90, Spokane, Washington
The call to let go of current group identities in favor of a national identity is premature and perhaps naïve. Conventional liberal “identity politics” is not about special rights, but rather about equal rights. A so-called “marginalized minority” of racists, sexists, homophobes and religious bigots is not a victimized group, but rather a bullying group.
I agree that the middle class is suffering and needs relief, but relief from runaway corporate capitalism, rather than from alleged favoritism toward people who are black, brown, female, gay, Jewish or Muslim. News and statistics tell us of continuing violence, harassment, pay gaps, home-ownership differences and unemployment that affect identity groups because of their identities and not just as side effects of business as usual. An overarching solidarity would be a good thing, but we should keep seeing our fellow citizens’ group identities, too, and keep guarding their rights.
—Greg Appling, ’69, Lafayette, Colorado
Stop the massive financial donations to politicians so that they would feel less beholden to sort all issues by party.
—Ladd Wheeler, ’59, Sydney, Australia
We need more than two parties. If socially conservative populists and socially liberal conservatives could have their own parties, the political dynamics would shift and voters would feel they have a voice. Most democracies adopted proportional representation in the 20th century. In the 21st, it’s time for the United States to catch up.
—Kristin Grenfell Eberhard, ’00, Portland, Oregon
An accurate 2020 census and districts drawn by independent commissions or judges instead of by legislators will go far to restore competitive congressional elections and lessen the disconnect between congressional and popular distributions of opinion. Already in Pennsylvania, redrawn districts are showing signs of establishing a better-balanced congressional delegation. Not an easy path, but more promising than trying to adjust our psyches or configure a new party alignment.
— Cornelia Little Strawser, ’53, Falls Church, Virginia
I have become involved in our state party politics. On occasions when I have begun to explain how to describe the merits of a policy to undecided voters, I have been stopped by political professionals who explain emphatically that the way to win is get “our” voters to submit their ballots and not to “waste” time and resources trying to convince undecided voters of anything. “Get out the vote” efforts have priority over everything else.
That strategy strikes me as absurd. It is the equivalent of trying to maximize market share by doing one’s best to ensure that loyal customers place their orders, while hoping that others — potential customers who have no loyalty and those who have been loyal to a competitor — don’t get around to ordering.
In business, our discussions with undecided customers and those with historic loyalties to a competitor provided feedback that often led to product improvements that earned us new customers without compromising our fundamental design philosophies. It is easy to see how American politics have become so polarized in the absence of such a feedback loop.
—Klaus Brauer, ’71, Seattle, Washington
Far too many Americans lack the knowledge (history, law and government, economics, the natural sciences, evaluation of evidence and critical thinking) required to form considered opinions. We’re more likely to disagree about policy when we don’t agree on what even counts as a problem.
—Peter Strong, JD ’75, Tucson, Arizona
I believe that academic institutions like Stanford have an obligation to enter this fray on the side of truth.
—Lynda Helmstadter Barber, ’76, Scottsdale, Arizona
The authors did not address an issue that I have been concerned about for some time: the entrenchment of the “propaganda of fear” machine in American life.
It starts with the evening news. We all need to hear what to be afraid of next. Maybe it’s a salmonella outbreak, maybe it’s not using the right sunscreen — the list is endless. When you combine this with the fact that the evening news has become something that has been bought and paid for by information moguls who have no interest in Americans being informed about significant problems facing the country and the democracy, then you get “newsertainers” presenting pablum designed just to give us the illusion of being informed and also keep our attention as to what to fear next.
As noted in the articles, political parties tend to “sort” — but I would argue that American society as a whole is big on sorting: My church is the only one that really knows what’s going on; my political party is the only one that can solve our problems; etc. But when we isolate ourselves on social media, where we only talk with people who think like we do, then we are easily manipulated by the propaganda of fear.
—Laird Thompson, ’69, Lake Oswego, Oregon
The faculty generally whinge about polarization but pointedly do not offer policies that they and other coastal elites should abandon in order to reduce polarization. Indeed, some of the faculty imply that a number of elite positions are nonnegotiable. If the professors are not willing to make policy concessions in order to reduce polarization, then they are contributing to polarization.
Additionally, the faculty are a bit short-sighted. Demographic changes in the racial makeup of the country and competition between the parties for majorities will collectively reduce sorting somewhat over the next decade or two.
—Richard Castanon, ’96, Washington, D.C.
I was dismayed that none of the ruminations about the current political situation within the United States even broached the possibility that one explanation for the malaise of our polity is the deficiencies of the United States Constitution itself. Think only of the Electoral College, which warps the very conduct of presidential campaigns, in addition to generating the possibility, realized twice in the past 20 years, of the majority’s will being thwarted. But Californians might also wonder why Wyoming, with approximately 579,000 people, has the same power in the Senate as the 39 million Californians. Jonathan Rodden, writing of the “rural-urban divide,” doesn’t even mention the fact that the over 50 percent of Americans who live in only nine urban states (and therefore receive 18 senators) are systematically exploited by the minority of the population able to control the remaining 82 senators. Didi Kuo concludes your symposium with the comment, “Democratic institutions are the best, and only, way to resolve crises of democracy.” But the Constitution itself was created to stifle the development of truly democratic institutions.
—Sanford Levinson, JD ’73, Austin, Texas
I don’t subscribe to the idea that the best solution is a return to democratic (or national) values and institutions. If the process of creating polarization is as complex as the writers believe, then the process of undoing it will be equally as complex.
We can begin by talking to each other under conditions that discourage invective-slinging. By meeting each other as human beings, perhaps we can begin to bridge this chasm.
—Mike Weimer, ’68, Grants Pass, Oregon
Polarization is entirely the fault of the Republican Party, which in supporting Donald Trump has become so radical that no decent person can affiliate or vote with it.
—Michael Gunther, MS ’74, Silver Spring, Maryland
Polarization (and democracy in peril) is what you get after an election when supporters of the losing party in academia and the media refuse to accept the results, and undertake a frenzied campaign to convince, respectively, their students and the country at large that the president-elect and his party are evil, and that democracy itself is in peril.
—William Donoghue, PhD ’96, Boston, Massachusetts
We now have a mob mentality on both sides.
—Robert Korody, MS ’77, Rancho Santa Fe, California
An opponent need not be an enemy.
—George Koenig, ’56, MD ’60, La Quinta, California
The data show more and more people leaving partisan registration and becoming independent or, as they say in Florida, NPA. While that may explain the view that the large majority of voters are not polarized, it also results in divisive interests controlling more of the national and regional power structure than previously, due to smaller, closely knit political managers and more viciously gerrymandered election districts at all levels.
The movement toward NPA political posture and the increase in activism opposing those religious and ideological interest groups will likely reduce the effects of the clashing of diverse viewpoints and increase tendencies toward negotiation and compromise.
—James H. Bennett, LLB ’62, Venice, Florida
Increased polarization has coincided with the ever-increasing scope of the federal government. Sweeping, high-stakes policy decisions in such areas as health care, education and the internet are all being made in Washington. Individual voters have diluted power at the federal level, and roughly half of them will be unhappy with any result. The more often voters lose, the more disenchanted, angry and powerless they will feel. Fortunately, the solution to this problem is already part of our country’s DNA — it’s called federalism.
—Michael St. Germain, MS ’02, Boston, Massachusetts
I wish it were only as bad as a political issue.
I believe the breakdown of community, potentially linked to heightened willingness to use legal remedies rather than compromise, is the starting source of the new political situation. When “I” becomes more important than “we,” many bad things occur.
The question is how can we rebuild “we” at all levels?
—Richard Knowlton, ’81, North Salem, New York
It seems that we have lost our ability to listen, if we ever had that ability. Without empathy, we are truly lost.
—Heather McAvoy, ’83, La Honda, California
I am not the first to observe that being factually correct is often a losing strategy in politics. And that’s ultimately driving these divisions. Despite our desire to the contrary, human beings aren’t that sentient, and even people aware of their own confirmation bias remain loathe to set it aside.
—Philip Eisner, ’87, Pacific Palisades, California
A war of ideas must never devolve into open war on the other speaker’s identity and right to free expression. To save American democracy, we must first remove ad hominem attacks from public discourse.
—Eugene Tatum, ’78, Nashville, Tennessee
Here’s an idea for having good political conversations with people on the other side. Listen for at least a minute before saying anything. You’ll usually find something you can agree with and use as common ground before making your own points.
—Vlae Kershner, ’76, MBA ’83, Menlo Park, California
Increasing globalization and technological advances have withered job opportunities in this country in the traditional agricultural and manufacturing sectors. These, coupled with tax policies and compensation packages favoring the wealthy and a lack of state and federal support for retraining, have led to job insecurity, income inequality and a lack of social mobility. Add to these problems the changes in demographics that affect most communities and that will result in whites no longer being the majority group by the 2040s, and we have a stewpot that is starting to boil over.
—Richard F. Wall, ’69, Orlando, Florida
The panel failed to consider the importance of technology and the change in the structure of government over the last century.
Transportation and communication technologies brought diverse cultures into intimate contact, polarizing society. Technology changed the economy from one in which unskilled labor with limited formal education made and built things to one in which college-educated specialists were required in new industries.
Government changed from state domination with limited federal government to domination by the federal government. The executive branch of the federal government expanded in size and power by the addition of new departments and came to dominate government by regulations and executive orders. The U.S., in effect, now has the kind of government without the regal trappings that the colonists revolted from in the 18th century.
—Frank J. Welch, MS ’53, PhD ’55, Thousand Oaks, California
I live in a red county in California. Among my friends there is 100 percent correlation between party preference and whether or not the friend has ever owned a business versus working as a professional for someone else.
—Carol Alcorn, MA ’58, Barstow, California
I am a Jew, worked for years in the civil rights movement, spent some time in Vietnam and own a small recycling business. What your scholars studiously ignore is the bitterness engendered by the left’s condescension toward and disdain for people like me, folks who believe in limited government and a respect for the Constitution and the laws of our land, not just regarding immigration.
—Doug Glant, ’64, Mercer Island, Washington
What I have observed is that polarization appears quickly (perhaps too quickly) after events. The speed of news and commentary tends to appeal to emotions rather than intellect. As time passes, the polarization fades, especially if the event causes little to no disturbance. And finally, as people are exposed to people’s stories and build relationships with “polarized” people, both sides seem to become more civil and willing to compromise or to wait it out and let history decide.
—Douglas Bryan, MS ’88, Saratoga, California
We have passed a number of tipping points. Life on Earth is on a short rope.
— Harold Hilliard, MS ’55, St. Louis, Missouri
I found it remarkable no one mentioned the “elephant” in the room — the Republican Party’s shift toward ultraconservative ideological purity beginning with the Newt Gingrich-led House of Representatives in the mid-1990s. Their lack of tolerance for compromise (which Democrats have been more amenable to, although that may be shifting, unfortunately) is a big part of what’s happened to American politics.
Another huge factor no one mentioned is our divided media. Surveys show conservatives rely on these openly partisan media outlets more exclusively for their information compared with moderates and liberals. I hope the left does not continue its tit-for-tat drift toward similar behavior, which is toxic to our democracy.
—John Larmer, ’78, Mill Valley, California
One of the big culprits is the media. The hate and vileness that come through on television and radio are very disturbing. There is no longer any control to keep discussion at a civilized level. There is no attempt at truthful reporting, just so long as the reporter’s — or the station’s — political agenda is put forth. If there was a change in the media in this respect, it would beneficially affect the nation’s polarization.
—Adam von Dioszeghy, ’64, JD ’70, Budapest, Hungary
The polarization is one-sided and fairly recent. Hordes of fanatical left-wingers on campuses, in the press, in entertainment media and in huge corporations (Google, Facebook, others) try desperately to suppress any opinions of traditionalists. Your nine professors seem oblivious to this. Deliberately?
—Douglas Smith, MA ’74, PhD ’77, Gig Harbor, Washington
As I see it, both major parties have moved sharply to the right since the 1960s. Right now, I see neither major party daring to challenge the power of the military-industrial complex that has become the actual government of our country. These issues pertain to our polarization, especially when one contemplates the number of our fellow citizens who can’t make ends meet and the misallocation of our nation’s treasure.
—John Raby, ’66, New London, New Hampshire
Our elected “leaders” need to rise above their obsession with their personal careers and fame — they need to stop toeing the groupthink of their parties — and put the interests of the whole country first by compromising on middle-of-the-road, common-sense solutions.
—Robert Schneider, ’70, JD ’73, Arroyo Grande, California
Politics has become a profession, not a service. As such, politicians spend the majority of their time working for their next election with all the different blocs, voter groups, deep pockets, etc., that will enable their re-election, as compared with working out realistic compromises for the benefit of all the country. Until we get realistic term limits, our system will remain broken.
—Gregg Bemis, ’50, Santa Fe, New Mexico
A missing variable in all the articles was the vast increase in money from billionaires with fringe ideologies — the Mercers and Kochs and the like, and the effect of that across all media.
— Mary Duryee, ’71, Oakland, California
Our elected officials have lost the meaning and art of governing.
— Mike Machado, ’70, Linden, California
I think the only way to fix the problem is to start a new political party — a party based on what the majority of people, the middle class, can agree with.
— Robert Hill, MS ’76, Summerville, South Carolina
While other democracies are facing political challenges and reactionary politics, five factors reinforce U.S. political polarization: (1) The Electoral College and structure of Congress give disproportionate sway to small and more rural states, while discouraging “minority” party voting when a state is overwhelmingly “blue” or “red”; (2) the role of money in U.S. elections, and the length of the political nominating processes, have given disproportionate influence to “dark money,” the radical right, other monied interests and the ability of misleading advertising to influence outcomes; (3) the two-party system in the U.S. facilitates a primary system that often produces the more extreme candidate from one or both major parties, rather than moderate candidates willing to compromise; (4) the electorate often does not have an in-depth understanding of U.S. history and the role and impacts of federal (and state) government in addressing overarching social, economic and environmental challenges. Consequently, that electorate often votes on emotions and/or identity issues that may, in fact, be counter to their long-term interests; and (5) three major trends — the “digital revolution,” the rising global population and the impacts of globalization — are accelerating dramatic social, economic, environmental and immigration changes. A proactive governmental response is essential to address them, albeit in partnership with business and broader interests in our society.
— Bob McCleary, ’69, MS ’71, Danville, California
It is a huge problem when you join your side solely because it is your side, not even questioning whether the side has a rational argument. We used to all work together to find solutions, but now we can’t breach the divide to even speak to one another. This precludes solving the problem.
—Aldegunda Feskanin, ’79, Ennis, Montana
This compendium is brilliant, ranking as Pulitzer Prize material.
—James Stewart, MBA ’67, Huntington, New York
I thought the articles in STANFORD thoroughly inadequate and superficial. Perhaps limiting the space for each to one page made any in-depth coverage impossible. No mention of the crudeness of modern discourse, the effects of polarization on students, the “sorting” to the left of most faculty and almost all law professors, the shameful failure of the university to uphold standards of open debate. And so on.
— Ileene Bernard, ’55, Los Angeles, California
People on both sides need to reach an understanding that the people on the other side are just that: people and not objects.
— David Basri, ’76, Lancaster, South Carolina
Two things shed light on our present predicament. One is the definition of demagogue: “A political leader who seeks support by appealing to popular desires and prejudices rather than by using rational argument.” The second is an explanation proffered by a cognitive linguist that Democrats must stop attempting to convince Republicans by rational argument, and instead must meet them where they dwell, in the realm of emotional rather than rational values.
—Kate Strasburg, ’63, Laguna Beach, California
Pick your sources well and the issue vanishes.
—Wayne Wilner, MS ’67, PhD ’71, Houston, Texas
The essays in the May issue were spot-on. Our politicians need to hear, study and take to heart this message.
—Michael M. Thacker, ’58, Santa Fe, New Mexico
Many of the Stanford scholars should start looking in their own backyards when it comes to who is and who is not allowed to speak their mind on campus when it comes to political differences, social differences or any other differences, and perhaps they will find the ingredients for division.
—James Opiela, San Diego, California
The progressive left has been striving to defeat conservative traditional America for years . . . led by too many professors.
—John N. Gordon, PhD ’71, Harpers Ferry, West Virginia
I spoke on the death of truth 10 years ago, bemoaning the increasing prevalence of propaganda and falsehoods in public debate of important issues. Corporations had until then been the major purveyors of falsehoods: Think the knowingly false distortions of the truth by the tobacco industry for decades, or later the knowing falsehoods about global warming that were funded by the hydrocarbon industries and certain other corporate interests. That wholesale disregard for the truth in the pursuit of profit has multiplied since then and now dominates Republican politics. Social media communication facilitates the death of truth.
—Dave Walbert, ’67, Atlanta, Georgia
Disseminate examples of bipartisan decision-making at all levels of government and throughout society. Much of this is going on already but doesn’t reach the broader public’s awareness.
—David Latham, ’66, MBA ’68, New York City, New York
I think the only solution within the limits of our political system is to arrange for more social-issue differences to be expressed within state or local units. The current national political system is so structurally undemocratic that things will generally get much worse before they get better.
—Laurence Elias, MD ’72, Berkeley, California
I believe social issues (abortion, gun rights) have distorted politics and been a major cause of polarization. Consider the damage the Freedom Caucus is doing to the Republicans in the House. As a Republican who is fiscally conservative and socially liberal, who believes in gun control and is pro-choice, I find that no one speaks for me. The far left and the far right have assumed the leadership of their parties.
—Janice Robertson Schock, ’51, Bend, Oregon
I feel that telling my own story no longer has any pull with my family and high school friends. They love the sinner but hate the sin they see in my liberal leanings. It is so disheartening.
—Stan Scoggins, ’88, MA ’89, Los Angeles, California
Whatever happened to common courtesy and the Golden Rule?
—Nancy Newman, ’62, MD ’67, Mill Valley, California
I believe polarization is the hallmark of our democracy. I was in Washington, D.C., during the 2016 presidential election when I was an intern in the Obama White House. The day after the election results, the chief of staff, Denis McDonough, held a town hall meeting and explained that the beauty of democracy is that even though we may not always agree with the result, we all agree in the process. I think our nation is constantly redefining itself, but I still believe we are all united by core values and beliefs: the pursuit of the American Dream and the rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
—Kevin Wang, ’17, San Carlos, California
The more discussion regarding possible solutions to the problem of the “great divide,” the better. There must be things both sides agree on that we can slowly build upon.
—Celine Grenier, Capitola, California •