USC experts discuss growing polarization ahead of primaries

Polarization has been attributed to political violence and the changing media environment.

Kamy Akhavan, the executive director of the Center for the Political Future, said the U.S. faces a specific type of polarization called “affective polarization.” (Brittany Shaw / Daily Trojan)

A joint poll by Reuters and Ipsos published Feb. 27 found that United States voters’ top concerns included rising levels of extremism and threats to democracy. The Daily Trojan spoke with USC experts about the effect of polarization on school district politics ahead of the 2024 California primary. 

While disagreement may seem to be at the heart of strong divisive sentiments, Kamy Akhavan, executive director of the Center for the Political Future, said disagreement within a democracy has always been a part of a healthy democratic process. As it stands, Akhavan said the U.S. faces a specific type of polarization called “affective polarization.”

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“[Affective polarization] is not a matter of ‘I’m right and you’re wrong,’ It becomes a matter of ‘I’m right and you’re evil.’ And as soon as somebody is evil, you can justify doing anything you want to them,” Akhavan said. “That kind of polarization has been creeping into our culture since at least the 1960s.” 

According to a report published in Boston University’s Pardee Atlas Journal of Global Affairs, the changing media environment and partisanship are exacerbating polarization. 

Another report published by Reuters in August 2023 found the amount of political violence in the U.S. is currently at the highest level recorded since the 1970s. Since the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol, Reuters identified 213 cases of political violence; physical assaults and confrontations accounted for two-thirds of those cases. 

“More and more young people are getting jaded by the political process,” Akhavan said. “They see massive dysfunction and not just people who oppose them but people who will threaten their lives if they have a wrong view.” 

Maria Ott, the Irving R. and Virgina Archer Melbo chair in education administration and a professor of clinical education, said education has always had a political side, but now, post-pandemic, there has been a significant increase. Educators now face division surrounding their teachings, and it’s leading to more reluctance. 

Julie Ann Marsh, a professor of education, said the polarizing dynamic the U.S. experiences at the federal level plays out in boardrooms and school board elections as well.

“There’s been lots of conflict around the teaching of particular topics, whether that be about race and racism or LGBTQ rights,” Marsh said. “All of those kinds of very highly charged topics have led to conflict, often with a lack of civility in board meetings.”

Ott said there will always be a level of political disagreement within districts, but now, school boards are seeing a movement where emotional responses are becoming prevalent. 

“We’ve seen in some cases where superintendents have either left their positions or have been asked to leave by governing boards divided around political issues,” Ott said. “When board meetings become ignited with emotion, it models for children and young people a way of expressing displeasure that isn’t consistent with what we value as a democracy, which is having respectful discourse.”

While the issues presented by polarization have led to violence and negativity, Ott said difficult times produce opportunities to grow and advance. Marsh said the hope is that new generations of students learn to move past ideology and find ways to work together bridging divides and bring about resolutions. 

“To get our best and brightest into public service [is a challenge], you have to be exceptionally motivated and skilled in order to achieve social good,” Akhavan said. “It’s very possible, lots of Trojans have done it, lots of people, Gen Z has done it; we need more of it. It’s that type of leadership [that] is essential for the healthy continuation of our system of government.”

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