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Political Science Professor Warns Of Dangers Of Polarized Politics


As the Senate considers radically changing its rules to require only a majority to get a Supreme Court Justice approved, one professor says a move like that would only polarize U.S. politics more. Georgia State University Professor Jennifer McCoy researches polarized democracies like Venezuela, Turkey and Hungary. And this week in The Washington Post, she argues there are lessons the U.S. should learn from those countries. She's with us now from member station WABE in Atlanta. Professor McCoy, welcome to the show.

JENNIFER MCCOY: Thank you so much, Kelly.

MCEVERS: So to start with, what does it mean for a democracy to be polarized? I mean, what do you see in these governments in Turkey, Venezuela and Hungary?

MCCOY: Well, what we are seeing is when voters divide into opposing camps they come to view the other side not any longer as a political adversary, as in a healthy democracy, just one to compete against and occasionally to negotiate and compromise with, but instead as a threatening enemy to be vanquished. And that means that compromise is no longer possible. Negotiations and communications break down. And people begin to perceive and be afraid of the other side.

MCEVERS: How polarized is the American system as compared to these other places that you research?

MCCOY: What we do see in the United States is over the last 15 to 20 years, one is that the growing distance between peoples and between the political parties as they each become more homogeneous within themselves, the Democrats and Republicans, and further apart. But the second part of it that's very important is the growing antipathy. So that is this perception that the other side is actually threatening, that if they come to power, if they win the elections, that that is threatening to our way of life.

MCEVERS: So what - from what you've seen in these three countries, what's the result of polarization? What happens?

MCCOY: Well, there's three possible outcomes. One is simply paralyzing gridlock where the two camps can't negotiate and compromise and arrive at any decisions at all. A second is that you may see a veering back and forth between two sides so that one side is in power for a while and is imposing its decisions on the other side. And that creates a backlash, and they'll be removed. And then the other side gets in and they do the same thing. The third is that the leader can stay in power, can change rules such as election rules that will benefit them, and begin to isolate, divide and repress their opponents. And you can see a growing authoritarian trend in those cases.

MCEVERS: So how can democracies reverse this process? How can you depolarize a political system?

MCCOY: One way to do it is to change the things that allow one side to gain too much power or to make, you know, political fights like elections a winner-take-all game. So in the United States, that would have to do with redistricting and not allowing the political parties to control the redistricting decisions to benefit themselves and to benefit the incumbents. But there's also a strong effect at the individual level where when people are afraid that - if somebody's own self-concept or world view is threatened, they refuse to receive new information that may disconfirm that.

Even if we can get out of our echo chambers and only, you know - and we can hear more points of view, people will still tend to reject the view that does not fit with their pre-existing beliefs. So we've got to find ways to bring people together and tap into their shared humanity. That is, to give them experiences where they can begin to empathize again with the other person.

MCEVERS: That's Jennifer McCoy. She's a political science professor at Georgia State University in Atlanta. She talked to us from member station WABE. Thank you so much.

MCCOY: Thank you very much.

(SOUNDBITE OF NATURAL SELF SONG, "IN THE MORNING") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.