But polarization is a bit different. It speaks not just to a lack of basic agreement about what kind of society we should live in, but a breakdown in understanding and respect among Americans. There's a lot of them-vs.-us talk these days on the left and the right. And while I'd never want to live in a country where we all join hands and sing "Kumbaya," maybe a bit more understanding wouldn't be all bad.
So I have small suggestions for New Year's resolutions for both the right and left in 2014. For liberals, maybe you should try to accept the fact that you're not the non-conformists you think you are. And for conservatives, perhaps you should consider you're not necessarily the irrefutable voice of "normal" Americans.
The thought occurred to me while reading "The Liberal Illusion of Uniqueness" in the journal Psychological Science. Apparently it's a well established finding that liberals tend to think their views are more rebellious than they are. They feel a "need for uniqueness." And that need can stand in the way of seeking commonality with other Americans.
Conservatives don't crave uniqueness. In fact, they are more likely to overestimate the extent to which there is a consensus around their beliefs. In other words, liberals bristle at the notion that they're conventional thinkers, while conservatives are too quick to assume everyone thinks like them.
I'm not a huge fan of subjecting politics to psychological analysis. It often lends itself to the pernicious idea that people with "healthy" minds have certain political views and that people with unpopular notions aren't simply wrong -- or have different preferences -- but are somehow sick.
Still, something about this finding rings true to me. One of the most impressive achievements of liberalism is the perpetuation of the myth of liberal rebelliousness. One of my favorite things to do when speaking on college campuses is to point out to students how conformist they are. (College students are a lot like that mob in Monty Python's "Life of Brian" who chant in unison, "We're all individuals!") I point out to the students that their professors are liberal. Their school administrators are liberal. Hollywood, the music and publishing industries are all overwhelmingly liberal. The mainstream media are liberal. "But," I ask them, "you think you're sticking it to the Man by agreeing with them?"
Meanwhile, lots of my friends on the right often seem to take it for granted that there's a vast silent majority of Americans pitted against a small cabal of elitist pinheads and would-be social engineers. As a conservative, I believe there are a lot of pinhead social engineers (see: Bloomberg, Michael). But I also understand -- or at least try to -- that there are millions of Americans who see these people as leaders who speak for them and address their needs.
Ironically, both the conservative false confidence in consensus and the liberal false confidence in uniqueness have a similar downside: smugness. Evidence for this is about as hard to find as straw in a haystack. Liberals often talk as if only the backward masses disagree with them, and conservatives often assume that only overeducated weirdos and radicals could object to their agenda. Hence Barack Obama's infamous explanation for why rural Pennsylvanians didn't support him: They were too busy "clinging" to their God and guns. Tellingly, conservatives took that line as a badge of honor.
Smugness is also the chief source of political problems for both the left and the right.
Conservatives have become far too insular, too often rejecting the need to persuade those who don't already agree with them, arguing instead that ever bloodier doses of red meat will grow the coalition. Liberals have become far too content with the myth of their uniqueness and the pretense that they are brave polymath iconoclasts who know what's best for you better than you do.
Maybe, just maybe, if both sides resolved not to take their most flattering myths for granted, America would be just a bit less polarized.