Political polarization, as defined by James Druckman, Payson S. Wild Professor of Political Science at Northwestern University, is "The tendency for partisans to dislike and distrust those from the other party." The problem of political polarization has been studied by political scientists for decades; research reveals that in recent years, it has grown significantly worse.
As the Pew Research Center points out, about 91 percent of Americans "say that conflicts between party coalitions are either strong or very strong" and there has been a 19 percent increase from 2016 to 2020 in those who see "strong" partisan conflicts.
To understand the negative effects of polarization, it is imperative to understand why polarization occurs and why it is increasing. As Shanto Iyengar, professor of political science at Stanford University, points out, the rise of political parties has caused American citizens to "divide up the world into an in group (our own party) and an out group."
Another reason political polarization has run rampant in recent years is due to the influx of partisan news media and social media, which has capitalized on the ability of citizens to pledge loyalty to one political party. Moreover, citizens continue to consume news media that confirms their political beliefs instead of actively seeking out views different from theirs.
The growing distrust between citizens has drastic negative effects on political cooperation, open-mindedness, and keeping America's democracy intact.
Although the issue of political polarization is wide-reaching, there are still methods to ensure that the future of our country is one that is bipartisan, united, and open to the views of others.
Implementing a reform of the civic education curriculum is necessary to alleviate the problem of political polarization because it would give more opportunities for students to remain engaged with politics at a young age and remain informed of current events.
Thus, a revamped civic education-based approach would connect students with civic opportunities and dampen the effects of polarization. This approach would involve four parts.
Firstly, state governments would work with local school districts to update standards for American history and civic education, implementing service-learning opportunities for students to remain involved outside of the classroom. Updating existing standards is necessary to ensure that students are engaging with one another through Socratic discussions of current events and collaborating with other students through projects.
Secondly, state governments would provide more service-learning opportunities that would allow students to connect with members of their community through community projects that alleviate local problems, such as gang violence, unemployment, homelessness, and more.
Thirdly, the Department of Education would create a national service to increase volunteering opportunities through groups such as the Peace Corps and AmeriCorps. However, unlike existing national programs, this national service would award course credit for volunteering opportunities to incentivize students to take part in them.
The fourth and final part of this solution would have state governments work with local governments to improve Internet access and develop technology that promotes civic education.
For example, state governments can create social media campaigns that spread information about voting and up-to-date messages about local elections and legislation. As a result, "civic deserts" will be flooded with resources relating to civic engagement and citizens will be more aware of impactful local legislation.
Overall, this four-part solution will decrease polarization in the long term as states improve their standards, students interact positively with their peers and community members, and schools gain improved access to civic opportunities. Local communities will see an increase in cooperation among business owners, churches, and schools, resulting in a less hostile environment for all.
During this time of intense political conflict, using a practical solution such as civic education will ensure that the future of America is in good hands. Teaching children the value of teamwork, service, and government will ensure that the lawmakers of tomorrow are more open-minded and cooperative, ensuring a sustainable democracy that values the voices of all citizens--regardless of political ideology.
Ashwin Marathe is the 2021 winner of the Clinton Foundation's annual "Ideas Matter" scholarship essay contest. Marathe is a graduate of Bentonville High School and will study political science at Columbia University in the fall.