Ask any American if they think political and cultural polarization is at an all-time high. Chances are, they’ll say yes.
Discussions around polarization are everywhere: at the water cooler, around the dinner table, on social media—and, this year, as the topic for the Westminster Honors College civility essay contest: Political and cultural polarization in the United States seems at an all-time high. Why is that and what can be done specifically to improve the fractured state of our democratic citizenry? Write an essay (600 words or less) that addresses this question.
Now in its fifth year, the Westminster Honors College civility essay contest provides Utah high school students with an annual opportunity to, in the words of the college, “engage in civil conversation about the crucial issues of our day, making arguments about hard topics in a reasonable, evidence-based fashion.” And students rise to that challenge: this year alone, 187 students from 57 high schools across Utah submitted essays.
As a student, you're constantly having to scrutinize your work in order to learn and grow, so I'm overjoyed, and relieved, to know that my writing holds up in a competitive atmosphere.—Anna Hull, class of 2023
"The judges agreed that the overall quality of work submitted in this year’s pool was the strongest in the history of the contest," wrote Dr. Richard Badenhausen, founding dean of the Westminster Honors College, in his email announcement of this year’s winners.
A bipartisan judging panel whittled the 187 essays down to 15 finalists, and from there chose one first-place winner (including a $2,000 cash award) and two honorable mentions (including a $500 cash award for each). The judges awarded Rowland Hall junior Anna Hull and West High School junior Anika Rao the honorable mentions and Copper Hills High School senior Ethan Hepworth the top prize.
“I felt really ecstatic,” said Anna of when she learned her essay had received an honorable mention. “I tried to not become overly hopeful, simply because so many people entered the contest. So when I learned that I was one of the award winners I was just really surprised and happy. I also felt really proud of myself. As a student, you're constantly having to scrutinize your work in order to learn and grow, so I'm overjoyed, and relieved, to know that my writing holds up in a competitive atmosphere.”
With Anna’s permission, we have shared her response to this year’s essay question below.
The Cycle and Solution of Political Polarization
By Anna Hull
Political polarization has existed within the United States since its conception. Although divisions existed before the establishment of the two major parties, the animosity between them largely contributes to the polarization of today. George Washington recognized in his farewell address that political parties would divide the nation, but citizens ignored him.1 As a U.S. history student myself, I’ve learned that polarization is cyclical; there are periods of intense disagreement and periods of profound unity. In the election of 1800, for example, Federalists and Democratic Republicans (the two major parties at the time) spoke viciously of one another, labeling presidential candidates as unchristian or authoritarian.2 Nevertheless, the young country’s citizens reveled in their independence and shared a strong sense of national unity. Later, in the mid 1800s, The Civil War tested this national identity. Ironically, Reconstruction was supposed to unify the nation, but it actually witnessed the birth of de jure segregation which intensified existing racial divides. One hundred years later, citizens battled at lunch counters and participated in mass protests during the Civil Rights movement. Simultaneously, the country united around a shared fear and hatred of Communism during the Cold War. Thus, polarization is not new to America, but there are contemporary factors of today’s disconnection.
One social fact of the United States is that Americans affix a high value to membership of political parties, on par with race, gender, or even social status.3 One of our nation’s prominent ideologies is individualism which makes supporting political parties so appealing: citizens choose what organizations represent them.4 Consequently, citizens are incredibly politically impassioned, turning dinner tables hostile. However, partisanship has maintained a constant existence in the United States, meaning the primary cause behind today’s polarization is not the American support of political parties, but rather how newfound societal powers reinforce feelings of division. CNN and FOX news, for example, disgrace each other on air, even attacking individual anchors. Networks sponsor the Presidential debates and transform them into sports events, where journalists, political advisers, and citizens all take their seats awaiting the sparring, predicting the victor, and cheering on their gladiator. Today, partisanship is tied to aspects of identity, such as location or religion, that brands prey upon to increase citizen engagement. Most importantly, political cooperation is no longer a goal.
A monumental experience that best illustrates the extent to which America is divided is the Covid-19 pandemic. Rather than drawing the country together for the sake of safety, the disease became politicized; mask mandates, quarantines, school closures, and other measures were not uniformly followed. If division is so ingrained into our country, how do we make change? It’s important to recognize that the current state of polarization is part of an ongoing cycle, meaning there’s no need to catastrophize, and no absolute solution. Conflict is one part of this cycle, but another is unity. Thus, one way to decrease political polarization is to acknowledge the similarities between political enemies. Regardless of party, all citizens of the U.S. witness the same problems, such as homelessness, unaffordable healthcare, and poor education systems. The minimization of political polarization comes when citizens identify that their enemies are not the people opposite them politically, but the systems that created these widespread problems. In order to remove power from these systems, it falls upon Americans to question the information thrown at them, to push against elected officials, and to make themselves uncomfortable. Most importantly, we must engage with political opposites to understand each other’s positions, rather than to prove ourselves victorious.
- George Washington, “George Washington’s Farewell Address,” 1796.
- “The Election of 1800,” U.S. History, accessed February 10, 2022, https://www.ushistory.org/us/20a.asp.
- Thomas B. Edsall, “America Has Split, and It’s Now in ‘Very Dangerous Territory’,” The New York Times, Jan. 26, 2022, https://www.nytimes.com/2022/01/26/opinion/covid-biden-trump-polarization.html.
- Milenko Martinovich, “Americans’ partisan identities are stronger than race and ethnicity,” Aug. 31, 2017, https://news.stanford.edu/2017/08/31/political-party-identities-stronger-race-religion/.