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Why Political Polarization is Holding Us Back but Why It’s Here to Stay

The United States of America’s Congress is a prime example of a network: each congressperson is a node, and each relationship he or she holds with another is an edge. These edges often change their quality, when two congresspeople switch the way they feel about one another, and either decide to work together cooperatively, or argue against each other’s convictions until both are blue in the face. These relationships change often and affect the ability that Congress has to pass bills and be productive. A prime example of how the change in these relationships and the effects these changes have on the proceedings is regarding the debt talks currently underway in Congress. It has been declared a goal of both parties to reduce the debt and get a handle on the deficit, but there is more to it than just not being able to agree on the content of the cuts.

However large and complex this network seems, it cannot escape basic principles, like the Balance Theorem. It is plain to see that not all of the edges in this network are positive, so we must therefore mentally map out the relationships had between all the different congresspeople. After mapping the network out, we can see why this polarization of Republicans versus Democrats is so strong: this is a balanced network wherein each group, the Republicans being one and the Democrats being the other, contains nodes, the congresspeople, who are all positively linked to other nodes within the same group. These positively linked groups are then “enemies” with one another, creating a situation where for each triangle, Structural Balance holds (two nodes are positively linked and the third is a common “enemy”, or all the nodes are “friends”). The tendency to enjoy polarization is then understood as the innate need to belong to a balanced network. Having partial cooperation between the two groups creates a situation where sets of three nodes will be unbalanced: two edges will be positive and one negative. The tendency in this situation for the two opposing nodes to become “friends” is somewhat diminished due to the busy nature of the nodes who may not be aware of the negative nature of the relationship between the other two nodes in our miniature network. Somehow, these unbalanced networks must resolve; either polarization will take hold again, or everyone joins in a fight against the greatest evil: our fiscal woes.

Our budget talks are held back by this polarization because to pass one bill, Congress has to agree on one set of provisions. Passing two bills which contain contradictory language to one another would prove extraordinarily useless, and is not the way our system was meant to work. For the remainder of these budget talks, the only solution is to turn as many of the negative relationships between congresspeople positive or neutral, so that the entire network does not violate the Balance Theorem, but also so that polarization does not occur. For the time being, the only solution is to find common ground, be positive and work together to produce a deficit and debt reduction bill that works for each party. It might prove useful to take a weekend retreat and get to know the other congresspeople’s concerns and empathize with their position. The fight against polarization must be one that is undertaken in unison, because only through positive cooperation can we move forward as a country, as a people and as a federal democratic republic.


NYTimes — In Debt Talks, Divide on What Tax Breaks Are Worth Keeping


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