Vallier is an associate professor of philosophy at Bowling
Green State University. His most recent book is Trust
in a Polarized Age. This article first appeared
The United States
is an outlier among established democracies in two respects:
We face both falling social trust and rising polarization.
I have argued that the two dynamics connect in a doom loop.
Trust in others and institutions falls, leading to greater
polarization, which drives trust down even more. That is
why the two processes are getting worse at the same time.
A nasty dynamic has taken hold in the country, and it regularly
affects all of us.
polarize us, but we should prefer polarization on economics
to polarization on culture. Polarization is least damaging
on issues most amenable to ‘splitting the difference’
— as many economic issues are.
Progressives want higher taxes on the rich, while conservatives
want lower taxes. The possibility of compromise always exists
— and even if it is obscured beneath the surface of
our political tempers, uncovering it is not hard. For example,
we could average our preferred tax rates, and no one would
come away empty-handed. Granted, that’s not how we
have handled this issue in the past, but it’s at least
When we polarize
on cultural or moral issues, though, compromise is much
harder, partly because compromise looks like weakness and
Most developed democracies split the difference. Third-trimester
abortions are generally difficult to get, and second-trimester
abortions are often discouraged, but first-trimester abortions
are usually obtainable.
a fetus is a person is a hard question to temporize on.
Either it is a person, or it isn’t. And if the fetus
is a person, it has a right to life — a right that
could outweigh the right of the mother to control her body
for the course of her pregnancy. Few people who believe
that a fetus is a person believe that the mother’s
rights trump the fetus’ rights. However, if the fetus
is not a person, abortion restrictions are intolerable.
They intrude on the mother’s rights, attempting to
control the most personal decision she may ever make. If
there is no child at stake, the limits have no justification.
is another issue that falls into this either/or category.
To some, trans identity might be a genuine expression of
personal autonomy; to others it’s an unfortunate confusion
that flouts biology. Either one’s gender identity
is independent of biological sex, or biological sex is the
only determinant. Conservatives see trans people as confused
about the nature of their personhood. Progressives see trans
people as struggling for recognition and freedom —
they want the same rights as everyone else. How can we split
the difference on this issue? Either we’re giving
into metaphysical insanity (the conservative position),
or yielding to bigotry (the progressive position).
The truth is
that moral conflict is part of social reality — and
always has been. Moral disagreement isn’t some perverse
feature of modernity. Human societies have always wrestled
with different perspectives and come to different conclusions.
permeates our personal relationships, too. You’ve
probably disagreed with the important people in your life,
often about vital things. And yet, usually, you find a way
to move forward.
polarized on cultural and moral issues — from abortion
to Covid policies. We could have regarded Covid policy simply
as an economic issue, a question of who should bear the
costs. But we have moralized it. It is a matter of life
and death, liberty or servitude, sacrifice or selfishness
on both sides. We cannot seem to compromise.
We need to think
harder about finding common ground on moral issues. One
solution is an old American one: federalism. Though not
a cure-all, decentralized policy left to the states can
reduce conflict, whereas disputes at the federal level seem
to bring only more polarization.
Perhaps we will
face a new test for federalism in June: If the Supreme Court
overrules Roe and Casey, we will need to forge a new federal
compromise — and on the most polarizing issue of all.