Lulu Friesdat Asks: Who Benefits from Political Polarization?

In today’s politically charged climate, it seems that polarization has become the norm. Divisions between political parties, fueled by partisan rhetoric and media sensationalism, have created an environment where compromise and collaboration are increasingly rare. But who really benefits from this state of affairs? In a thought-provoking conversation Lulu Friesdat, the Co-founder and Executive Director of SMART Elections, helps us sort out the origin and consequences of political polarization in the United States.

The Manipulation of Public Opinion

Political polarization serves as fertile ground for the manipulation of public opinion. As Friesdat highlights, polarized narratives reduce complex issues into soundbites, perpetuating a simplified, but distorted, view of the world. “Political parties thrive on red meat that pushes voters into entrenched channels of division,” she says. “Think about the push and pull between gun rights and safety, the conundrum of women’s rights and the rights of the unborn, and the existential questions posed by the profits and dangers of a fossil-fuel economy. “ In an environment of intense partisan hype, individuals are more likely to cling to their preconceived beliefs and remain closed to other perspectives. This manipulation not only hinders genuine dialogue but also stifles progress and prevents the development of comprehensive solutions to our society’s challenges.

The Erosion of Trust in Democratic Institutions

When political polarization reaches extreme levels, it also erodes trust in democratic traditions. As Professor Micheal Eric Dyson points out in Friesdat’s award-winning documentary, Holler Back – [not] Voting in an American Town, “That kind of political alienation leads to … political despair.” As citizens become disillusioned with the political process, they may question the legitimacy of elections, the efficacy of governance, and the integrity of the entire system. This erosion of trust can have far-reaching consequences, jeopardizing the very foundations of democracy. In particular, it decreases voter participation which results in even further extremism. Dyson articulates this with striking clarity in her film, “Without the healthy participation of the majority of Americans … the political process becomes hostage to those with deep pockets, those with extreme ideologies, and those with no sense of compromise.”  

The Power of Fear and Division

Polarization thrives on fear and division, exploiting emotions to drive a wedge between individuals and communities. It enables political influencers to manipulate public sentiment, promoting an “us versus them” mentality that disregards the nuanced complexities of social issues. Friesdat poses a thought-provoking question: “Who benefits from this fear and division? Is it the ordinary citizens seeking a better future, or the power brokers who exploit these divisions for their own gain?” By challenging the status quo, Friesdat urges us to critically examine the underlying motives behind polarization.

Polarization as a Distraction

While  Washington is consumed by high-stakes political games, important issues get frozen in an ice-tray of inertia. Friesdat encourages us to reject inflammatory agendas and refocus our efforts on  what is possible.  “If you look at the polls, there is broad public consensus on many issues. But it doesn’t translate into political action. And that’s no accident.”

Don’t Demonize Your Opponent

Battling spiraling political dysfunction, she finds her Buddhist practice helpful. She practices in the tradition of the Vietnamese spiritual leader Thich Nhat Hanh. She advocates for deep listening and tolerance, highlighting the importance of  engaging in respectful conversation and seeking common ground with those who hold opposing views. “It’s important not to demonize the other, because that completely destroys opportunities for simple friendship and camaraderie,” she says. By fostering understanding and empathy, we can break down the barriers of polarization and be open to the possibility of solutions. She invites us to envision a future where political discourse is characterized by cooperation, compromise, and a genuine commitment to the common good.

Discussing how these concepts can be applied to our elections, she says, “It’s critically important to agree collectively that we want our elections to be fair and accurate. If we can start from that basic foundation, we’ll have more trust in the decisions that flow from those elections.” Friesdat’s thought leadership reminds us that true progress lies in embracing our shared humanity and finding strength in our diversity. For it is only through inclusivity and cooperation that we can build a peaceful, fair and more resilient society.

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