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Polarization and the Political Mind

Abigail Roeder was a 2019-2020 Young Scholar Awards Program recipient. She graduates from Bethel University in May 2021.

In 2016, a popular political commentator tweeted, “Facts don’t care about your feelings.”  I do not recall the particular context of the tweet, but this short assertion situated in a confused campaign season remains in my memory. The blunt, convicted nature of the tweet ventured to personify a fact and speculated on its concerns. The personified fact apparently bore some sort of relation to a human, or at least a human’s feelings. Moreover, this tweet entered into cyberspace amidst a political climate that was rapidly becoming familiarized with the Trumpian idea of “fake news.” What a time for a tweet to be born.

This memory lives and perhaps the facts do, too. The bluntness of the tweet communicates a perspective that in the political realm, objectivity should be the name of the game. The implication is that objectivity trumps the motion and rhythm of human emotion. This is perhaps correct. Barring a new mathematical proof, 2 + 2 = 4. This will be true above and apart from “feelings,” as the tweet says. What is unclear is why the relationship between objectivity and human emotion is framed antagonistically. Though the truth of objective fact is unaffected by our feelings, the causal relationship can and often does run the other way. 2 + 2 = 4, but the objective truth of this may indeed influence human experience. For example, the parents of a child killed in a school, in a movie theater, at a Walmart, or on a street in Georgia know all too well the unchangeable truth of the subtraction of 1. They know that you cannot trick a math fact, that even if you switch the minus sign to a plus sign, the 1 must become negative and you lose your child anyway.

Other types of objectivity affect us as well. Instead of mathematical truths, consider the truth of events – the reality of a past happening bound by space and time. It is factual to say that a mass shooting took place in Connecticut on December 14, 2012; in Las Vegas on October 1, 2017; and in El Paso on August 3, 2019. As long as there is consensus on geographical demarcations and the Gregorian calendar, these are objective facts. The truth of events might also be perceived when bound by biological realities. First responders and coroners could surely confirm that the human body cannot defend itself against the action of an automatic firearm. Loss of life can be understood through a multitude of lenses, but the cessation of biological functioning is the initial reality through which the finality of death confronts observers. And like the math fact above, observers recognize that this cessation cannot be argued with – the permanence of loss is underscored by the truth of our biological finitude.

Lastly, let us consider political facts. These are most often ascertained through statistical data. Polling data changes through time, but truths can be drawn from dynamic political realities by comparing past data with current data. For example, it is objectively true that gun-related deaths in the United States reached a peak in 2017 at 39,773. It is objectively true that the rate of gun-related deaths has steadily risen since the 1990s, but remains below the 1974 peak of which the CDC reported 16 gun deaths for every 100,000 people. It is also objectively true that more bills supporting gun rights have been introduced than bills supporting gun control in recent years. A political fact might also be understood in a juridical sense; the letter of the law relates truths about the structure and function of a particular political community. On this understanding, the Constitution implicates that the Second Amendment is a particular political fact of the United States. Political facts such as these cannot be argued with, but they affect our experience. They may create tension with other known facts and compel careful policy discussion.

Our subjective response to objectivities creates the room in which we evaluate the facts and propose new actions. For instance, the truth of death and the truth of a protected democratic right appear to be at odds in America, and this prompts reflection and discussion about potential change. All this is to say that politics does not end at our assent to facts. We should dismiss the idea that it is a betrayal of our rationality to allow emotional affectivity into political discussion; it does not signify a lapse in objective thinking when anger, frustration, or grief is displayed in reaction to mass casualty events.

This does not mean objectivity is unimportant in politics. Indeed, I would suggest that it is our ability to accept the certainty of objectivity—the refusal to reject what our reason tells—that  gives meaning to human experience and informs how we respond and interact with the world. The symbiosis of our rational and affective natures indicates a sensitivity to truth. Facts may not “care” about our feelings in the sense that their truth-value cannot be altered by heightened emotion, but they are active in relation to human experience. The emotional responses they produce are what inform and guide our thinking.

Sensitivity to truth maintains the salience of both our emotional response to difficult facts and the aforementioned tension that arises from antagonistic facts. Meanwhile, a totally passive acceptance of truth, one that is unconnected with any sort of subjective interpretation, stunts thought both individually and communally. Sensitivity in politics may be necessary for the health of a democratic society, and appreciation of its value prompts a new perspective on political deliberation.