Within Us, Without the U.S.

Our social identities are key to steering America away from its frightening descent into polarization. (Reading Time: 4 minutes)

“I am large, I contain multitudes.” said Walt Whitman in his poem, “Song of Myself.”

Was Whitman ahead of his time in understanding the extraordinary fact that non-human cells compose more than half the body? 

More likely, he was giving voice to the complexity of being human and the fluidity of our sense of self.

Because within each of us exists many identities.

To get a sense of this, take a moment to list your internal identities by completing the following sentence: “I am ___________.” See if you can get to ten.

 Here’s an abbreviated list of mine:

  • A Father
  • A Landscape Architect
  • A Zen Buddhist
  • A Seattleite
  • An East-Coast native
  • Creative
  • A backpacker
  • A Sounders Fan

Our identities can span many arenas – geographic, cultural, religious, political, and more.

We are constantly shifting through our internal identities, depending on our situation. Our identities act as lenses – cognitive shortcuts that frame our perceptions and guide our behavior. For example, my landscape architect identity helps me navigate my work-day interactions, but my father-identity will kick-in to negotiate my home life. 

The communities we surround ourselves with are often co-evolved manifestations of these identities — our social identities.  And so the groups we belong to are fundamental to our sense of self and understanding of who we are. 

The groups we belong to are fundamental to our sense of self and understanding of who we are.

We are evolutionarily wired to form social identities and to sort ourselves into groups (a.k.a. tribes). At one time, our survival depended on knowing who was part of your “in-group” and who was part of a potentially threatening “out-group.” 

Each group identity has its own corresponding set of values, behaviors and norms that have a profound pull over our perceptions and behaviors. In fact, our brains are quite adept at contorting information to maintain our affiliation with our tribes and its norms, even at the expense of objective truth. You may have seen this in action.

Why am I talking about this? Well, the concept of social identity is integral to understanding America’s troubling growth of tribalism and polarization, which is handicapping our collective ability to tackle pressing social issues and threatening our democracy.

Ezra Klein sums up the situation well in his fantastic book, “Why We Are Polarized:”

”Our partisan [political] identities have merged with our racial, religious, ideological, and cultural identities. These merged identities have attained a weight that is breaking our institutions and tearing at the bonds that hold the country together.”

People are increasingly grouping all their identity-eggs into one mega-political-identity basket. And when threatened by the ideas or actions of an out-group, those folks respond as if their very survival is at stake since there is no other place to turn to find meaning, belonging, or hope.

In our polarizing society, those with different beliefs become enemies. And we lose the ability to work together towards a greater good with people who differ from us.

Pernicious polarization has metastasized throughout our country, increasingly down to the local level. It’s scary to watch school boards and front-line workers, for example, bear the brunt of these nationalized partisan identities whipped into a defensive fury. They just weren’t set up to handle that much my-survival-is-at-stake passion.

Even more scary: in “How Democracies Die,” a study of the collapse of democracies around the world over the past century, the authors make it very clear that extreme polarization is the death knell for democracy.  

In “How Democracies Die,” the authors make it very clear that extreme polarization is the death knell for democracy

And no other modern democracy has faced such a high level of polarization this long without an erosion or collapse in their democratic governance. Current events around the 2020 election couldn’t make our precarious position more clear. 

The Great American Experiment is indeed in uncharted territory. 

Maybe I’m a foolish optimist, but I’m still holding hope that America’s polarization isn’t yet a terminal condition. We can do something about this… right?

Yet I’m confused why so much popular media takes increasing polarization as inevitable. Why aren’t we talking about solutions and mobilizing action? Our brightest and best should be evaluating every possible means for depolarization, and our biggest funders should be investing in and scaling up the best solutions.

As Thomas Edsall pointed out in the New York Times last week: “There is no major or effective movement to counter polarization.” Why are we asleep at this wheel? 

If polarization is the subsumption of our social identities by a singular nationalized partisan identity, then the solutions must lie in cultivating identities that don’t evolve around the corrupting whirlwinds of national politics. 

How do we put that into action? How do we short-circuit the iron-grip of mega-partisan identity?

I have some hunches. As you may suspect, they have to do with creating belonging, rootedness, and connection in the places where we live. In other words, by re-grounding our identities in Place.  

I’ve touched on this in the past, but I will be diving deeper in upcoming posts. So stay tuned.

In the meantime, dear reader, what solutions have you seen for solving polarization? What gives you hope?