Is There Anything Good About Polarization?

Posted on March 17, 2023

Poster for The Civil Review Podcast episode titled Is There Anything Good About Polarization for Local Governments?

Today’s Morning Buzz is brought to you by Angelica Wedell, Communications Director at Polco. Connect with Angelica on LinkedIn, Twitter, or Facebook.

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When you look at social media and comments about communities, everything seems so polarized. You see a lot of arguing, finger-pointing, and very little listening. 

But when it comes to local government leadership especially, polarization just doesn’t work. Yes, it’s true that council members are elected by effectively rallying voters to their side. But when it’s time to lead through tough issues, it’s also time to collaborate. Whether elected, staff, or even engaged residents, we can’t do good work for our communities when we are divided.

According to Martín Carcasson, director of the Center for Public Deliberation and professor at Colorado State University, American values are not so extremely opposite as they may seem. Only a loud minority feels comfortable speaking up at meetings or posting opinions about social issues publicly on social media. 

From our opinion research at Polco, we too find that the vocal minority expresses the more extreme viewpoints. This is how social media distorts perceptions of reality. But representative surveys are proven to reveal what most residents think, and that majority includes far more balanced voices.  

Carcasson explained that to make our communities better, local government leaders should focus on wicked problems, not wicked people. When we separate the issue from the person, we can focus on coming together to tackle the problem rather than fighting amongst ourselves.

I’ve opened this discussion with many local government leaders, as we find that polarization is impacting the workplace now more than ever. When asked about overcoming extremism, Austin Good, Assistant City Manager for the City of Lone Tree says, “You can’t go in assuming bad intent. It’s all about finding that common ground together through productive discussion that focuses on the unified outcome that everyone wants instead of vilifying people upfront.”

To explore further, I’ve also brought the polarization topic to The Civil Review podcast. Produced by Polco, this new show dives into timely topics, community survey results, and analyses from our in-house data science lab, National Research Center (NRC).

In this episode, hosts Jessie O’Brien and I invite Michelle Kobayashi, Principal Research Strategist at Polco. We discuss what’s causing all this polarization, how it affects local governments, and how to bring balance back into decision-making.

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