Ann Heitland is Chair of the Coconino County Democratic Party. Her views may not be the views of all Democrats.
We can agree that the country is polarized but we may disagree about the degree of polarization and its causes. Large majorities support policies like free, quality public education; equal and free access to the fundamental tools of making a living (like transportation and internet access); a living minimum wage; non-discrimination on the basis of race, sex, and other immutable characteristics; and a progressive tax system that would reduce income inequality and its associated ills. Still, the country is polarized, and nearly paralyzed, because a minority opposes these policies.
Why? Because an even smaller minority does not value our system of government. They would prefer an oligarchy where they retain power and can profit not only from legitimate businesses but from corruption and exploitation in private enterprise and in government itself. But how can such a minority retain power when the majority wants other policies? One way is by exaggerating and exploiting polarization. Another is by distracting from issues the vast majority agree upon.
When politics is presented as a zero-sum game – that if one person gains another must sacrifice, you create polarization. When you falsely blame the struggle of the white working class on immigrants, government regulation, and high taxation, you create polarization. When you dog-whistle race and cultural differences and fight endless wars to stoke patriotic machismo and to gaslight your base from the real causes of their misery, you create polarization. America succeeds when the pie grows larger. Our nation slips toward failure when the pie is mischaracterized as finite and Americans are encouraged to fight each other for pieces.
How do we defeat polarization? We can’t because the greedy, the power-hungry, the ignorant and foolish will always be among us. What we can do is shine a light on truth and work hard to enact policies that make our economy work for all, that put America back on the road toward its ideals, and that contain the worst among us from harming the majority of us. That starts by calling out the real causes of polarization – the lies told not just on the internet but on Fox News, Newsmax, in newspaper columns pushed by right-wing so-called “think tanks,” from church pulpits, and by payola-politicians, including the immediate past President. Kudos to Dominion for suing Sydney Powell and Fox News for lies about voting machines! We must call out the lies and conspiracy theories that distract us from what we share and from supporting those who could, if elected, make life better. Failure to identify these big lies as the proximate cause of polarization will destroy the country.
Recently, some local leaders have argued that modifying the party system would reduce polarization and even that primary elections cause polarization. One of them even ran a campaign premised on the idea that the two-party system has failed us. In spite of a strong record of public service and immense popularity, he lost significantly. This week, an op-ed was published by another local politician claiming that voters register as independent because they see the party system as polarizing. Of course, any election reflects the differences in the candidates and with emotions invested in the outcome, there will be polarization. In Arizona, Independents may vote in party primaries simply by showing up at the polls and asking for the ballot of the party they want – or they may call the Elections Office and ask that a ballot be mailed to them. In Coconino County, our Elections Office sends out postcards reminding Independents of this opportunity. What could be easier?
Many registered Independents are so registered because they are less engaged in politics than those who choose a party registration. Some can’t get comfortable with either party. Some are in transition between parties. Some think that by not registering with a party, they will stop receiving political solicitations. Over the last 10 years in Arizona, we have seen the 20th Century trend toward registering Independent stop and even slightly reverse. Most registered Independents lean consistently one way or another and many do vote in primaries.
Primary elections are the means by which political parties nominate candidates to represent the party platforms in general elections. Without candidates from different parties in general elections, voters in some districts might never hear from the other party in a general election. Some voters need guidance of that party affiliation to vote. Even in non-partisan elections, a common question is “who are the Democrats?” That seems relevant to some voters even when, for local issues, the party lines don’t easily apply.
So far this year – and it’s only March, insurrectionists attacked the U.S. Capital in an attempt to overturn an election; our Republican State Senator Wendy Rogers purchased a lifetime membership in one of the organizations leading that attack; and one of our Republican State Representatives, Walt Blackman, declared he is running for Congress on the platform that the former President was “God’s gift” and if you don’t believe his ideology “watch out, we are coming to get you.” (Daily Sun, 3/25/2021) Governor Ducey rejected science to cater to this crowd and Republicans in the legislature passed laws to make voting harder.
To think that in this atmosphere of extremism, allowing members of all parties to vote in a single primary is going to bring us together is naïve at best. At worst, it smacks of the kind of both-side-ism that legitimizes such extremism and allows polarization to thrive.
To reduce polarization, we must unequivocally condemn what is unacceptable and sweep away barriers to policies favored by the majority such as voter suppression, gerrymandering, and the filibuster. Only then can we come back together as reasonable people to iron out the details.