Dispatches from the Empire

The Perils of Affective Polarization

A few years ago, I was a hardcore partisan. I spent most of my day surrounded by very smart people—lawyers, economics professors, successful businesspeople, and philosophers at Yale—who agreed with me and echoed everything that I wanted to hear about the dangers of big government (I’m a libertarian). My social media feeds, the news I consumed, and the books I read were full of the world’s smartest takes on why I was right.

Yet I was miserable. I was consumed by fear and anger towards the other side—all the progressives and conservatives who refused to see what was so blindingly obvious to me. My friendships suffered because I saw each conversation as binary: had I managed to move people towards libertarianism or not? If not, I judged the interaction a failure. Luckily, I didn’t lose any close friendships, but many of my relationships were fraying; and none of them had the intimacy that I yearned for.

I could have written these paragraphs.

I’ve lost more than one friend in the last few years. At first, because of my dogmatism. More recently, because of theirs.

I’ve watched family members drift away. I’ve watched people much older than I lose life-long friends over politics. I once thought that was admirable, but I’ve changed.

I feel called to write about these social dynamics because I’ve been on both sides. It wasn’t long ago that I hated all conservatives. But I’ve watched that hate infect people I love and care for… and it’s heartbreaking.