Working to heal polarization

Political polarization is easier to jawbone than to remedy.

“The trouble is when you get in the weeds,” said Larry Kramer, the president of the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation.

Given the degree of polarization, weed-tending is worth the aggravation.

Kramer spoke at the Seattle CityClub’s annual civic trailblazers benefit Tuesday. This year’s honoree is Puget Sound Partnership chair and civic elbow-er Martha Kongsgaard, daughter of the late Tom Kongsgaard, an Everett-born jurist and longtime Napa, California, Superior Court Judge. With Kongsgaard cloning not an option, solutions to polarization will need to be long-term, cultural and system-wide.

Kramer observed that it took 30 years to fall deeper into the muck, and un-shoveling won’t happen overnight.

One yardstick is the just-released political survey from the Pew Research Center. The American public is more polarized than ever, according to the Pew data, with this takeaway: The divisions are especially pronounced among those most active and engaged in politics. If increased engagement is a salve, then civic institutions need to steel citizens for the strident slough that awaits.

What of the “sensible center?” There isn’t much partisan overlap: “92 percent of Republicans are to the right of the median Democrat, and 94 percent of Democrats are to the left of the median Republican,” the survey reads.

Ideological rigidity even seeps into family life. “Three-out-of-10 consistent conservatives say they would be unhappy if an immediate family member married a Democrat and about a quarter of across-the-board liberals say the same about the prospect of a Republican in-law.” Until these divisions heal, it’s best to avoid political chatter when a-courting.

Kramer also points to the decline of political parties, which once served as a moderating force. Today, it’s about self-nominating and sidestepping party obligations. No smoke-filled room to tap the next nominee (good) but a lot of wing-nuts who make it through primaries (not so good). Primaries are one of the areas of interest to the Hewlett Foundation because voter turnout is low, and only the most partisan participate. Observers are intrigued as well by California’s top-two primary, which is identical to Washington’s.

Amplifying the noise is a fragmented media, as Americans reinforce their political inclinations with MSNBC, Fox News, and the blogosphere. How do we unsnaggle that?

Civic philanthropy investing in solutions is step one. The rest is up to us.

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